Written evidence from Miss Angela Watson

 

I am writing in response to your inquiry into the future of legal aid. I am a campaigner seeking to improve the experience of domestic abuse survivors in family court. Therefore, my response is limited to issues around legal aid for private family law child proceedings.

Domestic abuse

I am concerned that legal aid is still too difficult for some victims of domestic abuse to acquire. This is not just due to difficulties providing the required evidence but because of the means testing.

I am frequently told by survivors that they do not qualify for legal aid because they have equity in their home, despite having scant income or savings. Others who receive the funding must pay all, or some of it, back.

It is extremely unfair to expect domestic abuse survivors to sell/re-mortgage their home to fund family court proceedings. Many women are dragged through court as an extension of their domestic abuse by a coercive controller. These women are usually in a state of turmoil and crisis. They need to focus on safeguarding and raising their children, and the court proceedings. Additionally, often they cannot sell their home due to the ongoing dispute with their ex-partner.

I feel the rules around means-testing legal aid for domestic abuse survivors ought to be reconsidered. It is not just to compound the economic problems of survivor families. This will only lead to further problems for society at large. We must help survivor families thrive.

Disability

I am also concerned about the lack of legal aid for family court litigants who have disabilities which affect their participation in proceedings and impede their access to justice. This is a particular concern with the rise in remote hearings. Disabled litigants may have a particularly difficult time managing and presenting their own case at a remote hearing. I feel there needs to be greater legal aid provision for disabled litigants in general, but especially during the pandemic.

I realise that there is “exceptional funding” available but this is seldom granted. Furthermore, disabled litigants generally do not know about this, nor are they told about it.  I feel there needs to be better (pro-active) signposting to information about legal aid in general targeting all litigants who may be eligible. 

Denying legal aid to domestic abuse survivors and disabled litigants is clearly a false economy. The family courts are in crisis and unable to manage the existing caseload. This is partly due to the rise in Litigants in Person post-LASPO. With 1/3 of private law cases returning to court, clearly litigants need quality legal advice to help deal with their matters quickly and safely - to avoid delays and future litigation.

Many thanks for taking the time to consider my submission,