Domestic abuse victims who can’t get legal aid are being forced to sell their homes or rack up debts to bring perpetrators to justice, campaigners have warned.
New legislation introduced in January eradicated the cap previously used when determining eligibility, but charities say domestic abuse survivors are still being refused help due to owning their home.
Experts say victims who cannot afford legal representation are being forced to face their abusive former partners alone in court due to the changes not being properly rolled out.
The warning flies in the face of a December 2020 High Court ruling that stopped a legal loophole that blocked a domestic abuse survivor who was a single mother from obtaining legal aid despite her only having £28 in her bank account. Legal aid helps people pay for legal advice and representation in court.
Lola*, a domestic abuse survivor, said she reapplied for legal aid twice after learning the law had changed but has been rejected both times due to owning her home.
The 36-year-old, who is unemployed and struggling for money, added: “I was also rejected before the law change. I meet all the criteria, except for the fact I own my house.
“They asked: ‘Why haven’t you got a loan out? and ‘Why haven’t you asked friends and family?’ The process is re-traumatising. But my ex has got full legal aid.
“He manipulated a professional by saying he had suffered domestic abuse from me and got them to write this down in a letter which he then used to apply for legal aid. You don’t need any proof for this. He’s taking me to court for nothing.”
Lola, who has had two restraining orders against her ex-partner, said she qualifies for free school meal vouchers.
“I have to represent myself alone in court,” she said. “I’m not legally trained. It is the most triggering, traumatising experience. He has a barrister. They talk to me like I’m the lowest form of humanity. Like I’m scum. He’s got an endless pit of my money to keep taking me to court. It’s like I’m his plaything.”
Lola criticised the legal aid agency which gave her ex money for not even checking if there were legal proceedings or a restraining order against him – adding it should be standard practice.
She warned the “injustice” of the situation was “so huge” it means she is “consumed by anger” every day as warned an individual as dangerous as her ex-partner, who refuses to pay child maintenance, should not be granted “all that power” in the courts.
Lola, who is being supported by domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, recalled the abuse suffered during her relationship.
“It was never physical,” she said. “But it was getting to that point. It was emotional and financial abuse. He starting reading up on conspiracy theories and taking an interest in flat earth theories. He completely lost his grip on reality.”
Lola said he would regularly scream at her in front of their son for trivial issues such as leaving lights on and constantly ringing her when she was at home due to his “possessive nature”.
She said her son is keen to do school activities but she has had to request grants from charities to afford them — adding she is terrified she won’t be able to “afford to let him pursue his passions”. Money set aside for her son’s future is being spent on solicitors and barristers, she said.
“I’m in a horror film,” Lola added. “This man has got all this support. He is hunting me down. I’m going from room to room and there is no escape. He was bad enough but now the legal aid is abetting him to do this to me.”
Refuge found 1,780 women seeking help – more than a third of the total – had faced economic abuse from their partner. On average, the mistreatment, which includes being denied access to money or a bank account, as well as having debt placed in their name, lasted more than six years.
Charlotte Proudman, a family law barrister, told The Independent she had referred domestic abuse survivors to solicitors since the changes were in introduced but they had nevertheless not been eligible for legal aid.
Dr Proudman added: “Solicitors have said it hasn’t come into force. On the ground, it is not happening. The legal aid agency might be refusing because they own properties, which defies logic and law.
“There is one woman in particular, who because she owns half of the family home, they have said she is not eligible for legal aid even though she is on benefits. She is a domestic abuse victim. It is awful.
“If victims haven’t got any money to seek protection through courts, it leaves them in a vulnerable situation, unable to escape abusive partners and seek court protection. Such as orders which block the abusers contacting them or approaching them in person.”
Dr Proudman warned women who are not legally trained do not know how to “navigate” the legal system – with victims of domestic abuse being particularly scared to face their abuser in court alone.
“It is a process of them being re-traumatised without the protection of a lawyer to speak on their behalf,” she added. “An abuser can continue abuse by taking them back to court as a way of continuing harassment and stalking them.”
Legal aid for domestic abuse victims needs to be non-means tested and universally available for all irrespective of their finances with no delays, she added.
“Sometimes it can take weeks to get a legal aid agency to decide if they are going to get funding,” Ms Proudman added. “In that time serious physical or psychological harm could have been caused.”
Olive Craig, senior legal officer at Rights of Women, a leading women’s legal rights charity, told The Independent recent changes to legal aid are “applied inconsistently and do not go far enough to address the many problems presented by the legal aid means test”.
She added: “We expect the government’s long overdue review of the means test to address those deficiencies and ensure access to justice for all.”
While Lucy Hadley, of Women’s Aid, said they have been “disappointed” to learn domestic abuse victims who own their own homes are still being blocked from getting legal aid in spite of the High Court’s key ruling.
She demanded the legal aid means test to be completely axed for domestic abuse survivors to make sure “no woman who needs to access legal advice and representation when escaping an abuser is barred from justice.“
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson noted more than 94 per cent of applications for legal aid in domestic abuse cases were successful in 2019-20, but did not give data for how many were successful in cases where the victim owned a home.
“We have made it easier for people to apply and are reviewing the means test to see how we can best support victims,” the representative added. “On top of this, the domestic abuse bill will transform our response to this terrible crime, improving protection for victims and bringing more perpetrators to justice.”