We get many enquiries from people attempting to escape abusive partners. These individuals and families are often referred to us by domestic abuse charities. We try to help as best we can, with sign posting to organisations that offer pro bono work, as many people cannot even begin to challenge their living arrangements without public funding (Legal Aid). However, law firms find it so difficult to make Legal Aid work. Despite referring cases on to Legal Aid firms, a general feeling of unease remains that victims of all types of domestic abuse are being failed.
A short while ago, we had an enquiry from someone who was desperate to escape her living arrangements. She owned her house jointly with her husband, who was constantly at home. We had to call her to advise her on her options when she managed to convince him she was leaving the house to get milk. The husband appeared to be extremely coercive and controlling: not only did he manage every aspect of her life, but he had transferred assets into her name online which only he could access. She had absolutely no idea of her exact financial situation but knew that if she ever challenged her husband, he would work ceaselessly to hide those funds and escape scrutiny.
There is considerable evidence that, in these types of situations and many others within the family law sphere, money is used as a weapon: the husband here had access to funds to create delays and send repeated applications to court to silence the other person. Along with this, since the coalition government, withdrawal of legal aid has impacted women much more.
Tens of thousands of domestic abuse survivors have been denied legal aid support since the law was changed more than 10 years ago – with the proportion of domestic abuse cases funded by legal aid falling from 75% to 47% according to the House of Commons library. During the same period, real-term spending on civil legal aid for domestic abuse cases had dropped by 37%.
As with so many aspects of government policy around receipt of benefits (in the widest sense), the Legal Aid system appears to revolve around a tortuous process of having to ‘prove’ your domestic abuse status. You need to get evidence, fit into certain categories of legal problem and be means tested. How easy is it to do all this if you can’t even leave the house without getting the approval of your spouse or partner. It is quite easy to conclude that the legal aid machinery has more than a whiff of I, Daniel Blake about it, so that just like the benefit system, it is so deliberately difficult and bureaucratic that people just give up.
The law needs to catch up with the much-needed recent focus on coercion and controlling behaviour too. In order to hope to obtain an emergency injunction to escape an abusive partner, a Judge has to be satisfied that there is real evidence of abuse and urgency – or the hearing would have to be conducted with both parties present. How does an abuse sufferer ‘prove’ abuse in these circumstances when control can be exerted with just a look? How can a Judge be satisfied that there is urgency when so much prospective violence can be communicated in ways where no evidence can be found?
In a country where a multi-millionaire former Prime Minister is able to obtain taxpayer funded legal assistance to fight allegations surrounding his conduct in office, domestic abuse victims are having to fight the Legal Aid Agency through the courts to change the way in which applications for funding are judged.
Clearly this situation cannot continue and there is hope that reform will come. However, in the meantime, if you find yourself in a situation of domestic abuse, you should seek professional legal advice and our family law team are here to help you as best we can.