Our legal aid system, of which we have been rightly proud, is facing the most devastating cuts in its history. The Bill is making its way through Parliament. It has gone through the Commons unscathed and is due before the House of Lords as we speak.
It will no longer be possible to have public funding in many areas of law including welfare benefits, immigration and medical negligence.
But those most badly hit will be victims of domestic violence. Under the proposed new regime a victim of domestic violence will find it virtually impossible to get legal aid to apply to the court for protection. The victim will have to establish that there is a ‘high risk of violence’, before legal aid will be available. To find out more, read this.
Most commentators and practitioners accept that in reality this means that there will have to have been reports to the police. Statistics show that very few women report violence to the police. Specialist law firms with files audited by the Legal Services Commission anticipate that their workload that comprise hundreds of cases might well be reduced to single figures once these cuts take effect.
The reason a civil remedy was brought into existence in the 1970s was to address this very problem. These provisions take us back 40 years and will see many women trapped in abusive relationships.
Any civilised society has to have a rule of law. However if that rule of law is to be of anything but notional value, there must be an equal right of access. To deny that some of the most vulnerable members of society the support of that society to seek protection is a dangerous and retrograde step. I certainly hope that these provisions will be opposed in the Lords
Steve Cornforth is senior partner of EAD Solicitors in Liverpool and Huddersfield. Steve is the current vice president of Liverpool Law Society and will become President in December 2011. He has established its Access to Justice Committee to focus on the impact of current and proposed cutbacks in legal aid.