Note: Since this page was published, the government has confirmed that legal aid will still be available, in some circumstances, for victims of domestic violence and victims of trafficking who don’t meet the residence test. This page will therefore be updated shortly to reflect these changes.
Rights of Women gives the following example of the impact of the proposed changes on women victims of domestic violence:
Ms A was brought to the UK by her British husband, she experienced sexual violence and financial abuse before being forced to leave the family home. Ms A was found on the street by a concerned member of the public who brought her to our organisation. Ms A was denied access to her family home, her child, her passport and other documents.
Using legal aid we assisted Ms A to:
- Obtain a non-molestation order to protect her from further violence and access her belongings
- Start divorce proceedings and secure financial support from her husband
- Secure residence of her British child.
- Resolve her immigration status
Ms A would not meet the residence test if it were implemented and without access to legal aid, she and her son would have been at risk of further violence and abuse.
The Government’s proposed changes to legal aid will have a disproportionate effect on women. Women represent a majority within a number of different groups of people who will be unable to receive legal aid under the new proposals. Women who are victims of trafficking, victims of domestic violence and single parents are all likely to be negatively affected by the proposed changes.
Under the proposed ‘residence test’, a victim of domestic violence who cannot prove she has been lawfully resident in the UK for 12 months will be unable to obtain legal aid for an essential order to protect her from a violent and abusive partner.
The residence test will prevent women who have their children taken away from them by social services but who don’t meet the residence test from being able to receive legal aid to challenge this.
Women who are refused accommodation or support by their local authority or who are housed in unsuitable accommodation will be unable to challenge this if they do not meet the residence test. This is likely to lead to a rise in women being made homeless which in turn could lead to a rise in women being exploited and forced into vulnerable situations, including prostitution.
The plans to cut legal aid for the first stage of judicial review which may cause many firms to be unable to undertake work challenging government bodies who act unlawfully, means that women may be made homeless or housed in unsuitable accommodation or be detained unlawfully in immigration detention and be unable to receive legal aid to challenge this.
The changes to legal aid for prisoners, denying legal aid to women in prison to challenge important issues, means that women who are in prison will not receive legal support in relation to important issues such as whether they can care for their newborn babies.
Under reforms to criminal legal aid, women who are charged with a crime will be represented by a lawyer who has bid to do the work for the lowest price and who will receive a fixed fee regardless of whether the accused woman pleads guilty or not guilty. This makes it more and more unlikely that women will be able to receive specialist representation from criminal defence lawyers familiar with the particular issues and needs of women who are charged with crimes.