Women’s Access to Justice and Revision to Civil Legal Aid

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2007 National Women's Conference
20 October 2006

Conference is committed to UNISON’s campaign to tackle domestic violence as a trade union issue. The government’s initiative “A Fairer Deal for Legal Aid” led to the Carter Report which was out for consultation until October 2006. Conference is concerned at the revision to the Civil Legal Aid Scheme in respect of dispute resolution. The changes to the Legal Aid Scheme resulting from the Law Commission consultation which stated that it wished to reprioritise funding so that early and effective dispute resolution was encouraged and unnecessary litigation was discouraged to ensure that funding was better targeted on deserving cases and priority areas.

The United Nations (UN) Beijing Declaration, to which the United Kingdom government is a signatory, gave a commitment to improving access to legal justice for women. The changes to the Legal Aid Scheme deny vulnerable women their rights to access legal assistance. Within the definition of “vulnerable women” survivors of domestic abuse should be included. The tests of “high priority” and “financial eligibility” discriminate against vulnerable women. Under the present arrangements those women in receipt of Working Family Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit may be denied justice because these benefits and low income/earnings take them over the limit to be eligible for legal assistance.

In addition, the restructuring of the Family Levels of Service threatens to force women into mediation or alternative dispute resolutions. Women who have been subjected to domestic violence do not want or are unable to cope with being mandated to participate in mediation with an ex-partner or abuser. This does not create equitable circumstances for women to be able to negotiate separation or divorce agreements. Survivors of domestic abuse do not want to enter the same room as their former partners let alone enter into discussions with them. Cases involving domestic violence should be exempt under the Legal Aid Scheme without financial consequences to the women concerned. Many women are unable to seek legal redress unless it is through the Legal Aid Scheme. Resolution, formerly The Solicitors Family Law Association, has researched that there has been a significant reduction in the number of family practitioners contracting to do legal aid work. Legal aid practitioners are demoralised that legal aid is not recognised as a vital public service or as contributing to combating social exclusion. Resolution has stated that the lack of family practitioners leaves the most vulnerable at risk of losing access to justice especially for injunctions for domestic violence.

Conference instructs the National Women’s Committee to:

1)campaign for victims of domestic violence to have access to legal justice in accordance with the UN Beijing Declaration and to liaise with UNISON’s Labour Link on this issue;

2)campaign to seek to include in any definition of “vulnerable women” in relation to the Legal Aid Scheme, survivors of domestic violence;

3)campaign to remove survivors of domestic violence from being subjected to mediation or alternative dispute resolution under the Families Mediation in the Legal Aid Scheme;

4)campaign for adequate public funding for the Legal Aid Scheme as a vital public service for women;

5)campaign for financial eligibility to be removed as criteria for access to Legal Aid for survivors of domestic abuse.