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Legal Aid – Friend or Foe of Domestic Violence?

Maybe in years to come people will say “where were you on 1st April 2013?” For many the question will conjure up images of elaborate jokes, tricks and hoaxes. For Legal Aid lawyers it will bring to mind the date on which Legal Aid for family law disuptes was limited to cases where there is or has been a substantial element of domestic violence, or a family law protective order is required. The measure sounds like a joke – but it isn’t. Accordingly domestic violence is now officially described as “any incident, or pattern of incidents, of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (whether psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between individuals who are associated with each other.”  The new definition can be found in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Amendment of Schedule 1) Order 2013. It brings the Government into line with other agencies.

So for example, Women’s Aid speaks of “violence that takes place within an intimate or family-type relationship and that forms a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour”. The Association of Chief Police Officers speak of  “violence between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.” Refuge speaks of ” the abuse of one partner within an intimate or family relationship. It is the repeated, random and habitual use of intimidation to control a partner.”

As a matter of logic the new definition encompasses so-called “honour” based violence and forced marriages.

The domestically abused are amongst the most vulnerable in our society. To be at regular risk of sexual or physical assault is an humilating and degrading situation, which strips away self-esteem and every vestige of human dignity. The same can be said of being made subject to repeated verbal abuse and threats. Many victims of domestic violence however will not be able to provide the “gateway evidence” which would allow a grant of Legal Aid. Not every abuser has a “relevant” conviction, caution or pending criminal trial. Not every victim goes to the doctor, hospital or a refuge. The new provision could turn out to be an abuser’s best friend.

 

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