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Bishops warn of dangers in changes to legal aid

07 March 2012

by Ed Thornton

BISHOPS joined opposition to government legislation this week that campaigners said would restrict access to legal aid for victims of domestic abuse.

An amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, brought by Lady Scotland, sought to remove restric­tions on the types of evidence that victims of abuse would need to provide to qualify for legal aid. It was passed by 238 votes to 201 on Tuesday.

Speaking in the House of Lords on Monday, the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, who voted for the amendment, said: “I fully understand that the Govern­ment are concerned with the risk of abuse of the legal-aid system, and the risk that people will make false claims under the guise of domestic-violence claims, but there is an opposing risk of harm — indeed, possibly death — to the victims of domestic violence.”

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, was one of ten faith leaders who signed a letter to the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, last weekend.

The letter stated that legal aid was “nothing short of essential for many victims of domestic abuse”.

It welcomed the Bill’s protection of the “provision of legal aid in many cases where domestic abuse is in­volved”, but warned that “the Bill risks restricting the overall number of cases entitled to support, and consequently causing harm to many individuals and families.

“Similarly, the proposed list of ‘objective evidence of domestic vio­lence’, required in order to qualify for legal aid, appears restrictively narrow. Most worryingly, the fact that someone has used specialist dom­estic-violence services, pro­vided by voluntary agencies such as women’s refuges, will not neces­sarily be accepted as evidence.

“This may leave many victims in dire need of support, but without the ‘right kind of evidence’ to secure it, whilst others will be discouraged from pursuing legal solutions at all.”

The chief executive of the Caritas Social Action Network, Helen O’Brien, said: “Civil legal aid fre­quently plays a fundamental role in protecting victims of domestic abuse, and ultimately allowing them to break away from the horrific circumstances that they face.”

Writing for a newspaper in Gloucester, The Citizen, last week, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, said that the proposal to remove “most advice for social welfare law from legal aid”, would mean that “around 3000 people in Gloucester will be left with no way of enforcing their rights when faced with employment, welfare-benefits, housing, debt, or immigration problems.”

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