It has been reported by the BBC that the National Centre for Domestic Violence say that 6,000 victims of domestic abuse were denied free legal representation last year.
Even when victims require Legal Aid to obtain Non-Molestation Orders, the applicants have to pass a financial means test and there are many who either do not qualify or have to pay a contribution towards the costs of their case, which they struggle to afford.
What the Legal Aid Agency classes as the applicant’s disposable income is at an extremely low level and has not risen for many years. The main deductions the Legal Aid Agency takes into account when assessing income relate to mortgage/rent payments, tax and National Insurance and deductions in relation to dependents, including partners and dependent children. Child care costs because of work or study are also taken into consideration.
Other costs of living, for example Council Tax and other utility bills, food, clothing, transport costs, etc., are not deducted from the client’s income for the purposes of Legal Aid calculations. The fact that the cost of living has significantly risen in recent years has not been taken into account by the Legal Aid Agency at all. Also, following deduction of the very limited expenses allowed by the Legal Aid Agency, if a victim’s disposal income is over £733, then they would not usually qualify for Legal Aid. There is a disregard permitted in respect of victims of domestic violence and abuse who require legal assistance. However, the reality is that if Legal Aid is granted in cases where victims have a certain level of income, then a significant contribution would usually be required from the victim.
In addition to this, if victims have assets over a certain value, e.g. property or savings then, again, a significant contribution may be required from them in order for them to benefit from representation under the Legal Aid scheme. Sometimes even when victims own certain assets, they are not liquid assets (i.e. money) because they are wrapped up in property. In such cases therefore, they simply cannot afford the cost of any contributions that are required by the Legal Aid Agency. The Legal Aid Agency also take into account jointly owned assets when assessing what people own.
Even if victims pass the financial means test for Legal Aid, they may still struggle to satisfy the Legal Aid Agency of this, for example if they cannot access the relevant documentation which will be required of them due to the fact they have fled the family home. It can be very difficult for victims, even if it is the case that they would qualify for Legal Aid and pass the financial means test without even having to pay any contribution, if they are not able to access such documentation as required. This can result in some of the most vulnerable members of society not being able to access Legal Aid to enable them to seek protection from the Courts.
In the article published on the BBC website on 8th April 2018, an example was provided of a client who had secured Legal Aid to secure a Non-Molestation Order against her husband. However, after the Order had been obtained, she was subsequently informed by the Legal Aid Agency that she would not qualify for free legal representation and was given a bill for £6,000.00. It is understood she is currently appealing the decision, and she has commented that if she had been informed in the first place that the proceedings would cost £6,000, then she would not have gone ahead and would not have secured the legal protection from her abuser that she required.
There is a considerable amount of skill in advising victims as to whether or not they are likely to be eligible for Legal Aid after undertaking a financial means test with them. It is, therefore, very important to obtain expert legal advice prior to agreeing to sign up for any Legal Aid or having the benefit of this, to ensure you are fully aware of any potential costs that you may be liable for.
At Emery Johnson Astills we have special trained staff in the Domestic Violence and Abuse Department (DVAD) who can assess whether you would be likely to qualify for Legal Aid in relation to difficulties regarding domestic violence and abuse and/or of the perpetrator has applied to the Court for an Order regarding your child(ren). Do not hesitate to contact the DVAD at Emery Johnson Astills, either by phoning 0116 255 4855, or by emailing DVAD@johnsonastills.com in order that we can provide advice as to whether you may be eligible for Legal Aid.
A specially trained member of staff in the DVAD of Emery Johnson Astills will be able to provide advice as to what measures you can take to protect yourself and your child(ren) and also whether you may be eligible for Legal Aid and whether or not contributions are likely to be payable.