Following a recent ruling in the High Court, victims of domestic abuse will no longer automatically be denied legal aid if they jointly own property with their alleged abuser.
Previously, the Legal Aid Agency classed such people as in possession of capital and therefore not eligible for assistance, even if they were unable to access that capital because it was tied up in the property. But the High Court has now insisted that the Agency does have the authority to award funding in such circumstances.
The case was “strategic litigation” to clarity a point of law. It was brought by legal charity the Public Law Project (PLP), with signficant assistance from the Law Society – the professional association for solicitors in England and Wales. A client referred to in the judgement as ‘GR’ was represented pro bono (free of charge) throughout.
GR, a mother of two, was unable to pay for a solicitor in proceedings against her former partner regarding custody of the children and ownership of their home. She was receiving benefits – Universal Credit – and according to the PLP, she had just £28 in her bank account by the time the PLP case came to court.
Sitting in the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court, Mr Justice Pepperall explained:
“Public money spent upon civil legal aid is rationed so that it is targeted upon those in greatest need. It is not available in some areas of work at all and, where it is available in principle, it is for the most part subject to merits and means testing.”
Despite the apparently common sense exclusion of property owners from eligibility for legal aid, some groups struggle to access that capital, the Judge explained, including:
“…those on very low incomes who have joint interests in property bought principally on the basis of their former partners’ more substantial incomes.”
“GR is such an applicant. She claims to be the victim of serious and prolonged physical, emotional and sexual abuse from her former partner, BK.”
After a detailed examination of similar previous cases and the applicable legislation, Mr Justice Pepperall concluded:
“I am …satisfied that a fixed system for the valuation of interests in land … would prevent some people on low incomes who cannot access the equity in their homes from having fair and effective access to justice.”
The PLP thanked the Law Society for their support, adding:
“The news means a great deal to our client. The decision to deny her legal aid will now need to be reconsidered. This judgment is an important clarification of what the legal aid rules mean, and that is a positive step towards better access to justice for our client and for other women in a similar situation.”
“This ruling could mean I won’t have to face my abuser in court without being represented. The last time I had to face him in court was horrendous. I had to speak for myself whilst he was there with a barrister. I was so nervous and scared that I was physically sick in the court room. My mum has already taken out so many loans to help me through this so hopefully she won’t have to do that anymore. We still have a long way to go with our legal challenges, but this ruling gives me some peace of mind. If it means that other women won’t have to face their abusers in court, that will be amazing.”
Read the original ruling here.