Has the wrong message got out about Legal Aid?
As of April 2013 the Government has changed the rules relating to which areas of legal advice apply for Legal Aid. These new rules are much tighter than the pre April 2013 ones.
The principal change is that in family law cases, Legal Aid will only be made available to "victims" at risk of domestic violence wishing to pursue court proceedings. It should be noted that Legal Aid might also be available in cases relating to children and is still available to those wishing to enter into mediation.
However, along with these new rules there are equally specific criteria for applying for Legal Aid. It is not enough to allege domestic abuse/violence. Evidence needs to be provided. It will not be sufficient, for instance, to have kept abusive text messages from an angry partner, on your mobile phone.
The evidence that is required includes:
1. An unspent conviction for a domestic violence offence committed by the other party.
2. A police caution.
3. A letter from a Multi Agency Risk Assessment.
4. A letter from a doctor, health visitor, nurse or midwife confirming a consultation has taken place within the past 2 years where the applicant presented with injuries or a condition consistent with being a victim of domestic violence.
Although there is no denying this tightening of the rules, the message seems to have got out that Legal Aid is no longer available at all. This is not the case. Since April, there has been a notable decrease in the number of requests for mediation and an increase in the number of cases brought directly to court by the applicants, in person. Clearly people believe that going to court and representing themselves is, currently, their only option. We must ask ourselves whether the public have misunderstood these new Legal Aid guidelines or whether they were simply not explained adequately in the first place. It is of paramount importance that the right message is conveyed to the general public and that they are made aware of the support and guidance available to them, in such circumstances.
As Catherine Bakes pointed out in the Law Society Gazette (3rd June 2013) the poor communication of these changes could lead to "situations where the only legally qualified person, in court, is the Court Legal Advisor or the District Judge".
At Wards, we still offer Legal Aid in several of our offices such as Bristol, Staple Hill, Weston Super Mare and Clevedon. If you feel that you might qualify for Legal Aid, under the new rules, or wish to discuss your legal situation, we offer a 30 minute free appointment.