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Alleged victims of domestic violence will be able to avoid confronting abusive partners in court after ministers widened the availability of legal aid.
Officials are to scrap a five-year time limit on the evidence of abuse that can be used, which limited the availability of legal aid, as well as widening the range of documents accepted as evidence.
The move is a response to widespread criticism about the lack of support for those taking abusive former partners to court in family proceedings.
Dominic Raab, justice minister, said: “We have listened to victims’ groups and carefully reviewed the criteria for legal aid for victims of domestic abuse in family cases. These changes make sure that vulnerable women and children get legal support, so their voice is properly heard in court.”
Legal aid is available to people involved in private family disputes if they are victims, or are at risk of becoming victims, of domestic violence or child abuse. Applicants must provide objective evidence of abuse within the last five years to qualify.
The time limit will be removed under changes coming into force from January, while statements from domestic violence support organisations and housing support officers will become eligible to be used as evidence in applications.
Documents submitted as evidence must come from social services, law enforcement or medical professionals. The Legal Aid Agency has powers to withdraw funding if evidence of domestic violence is proven to be false.
The restrictive evidence requirements were imposed under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) in 2012. The government is reviewing the impact of the act on access to justice.
Joe Egan, president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, welcomed the move. The forms of evidence required were too restrictive, he said, and broadening the types that would be accepted “will remove many of the difficulties faced by victims”.
Estelle du Boulay, director of the Rights of Women charity, said: “The previous system was so clearly unjust, leaving many genuine survivors unable to access the legal aid they were entitled to, because the evidence requirements were narrow, onerous and unrealistic.”
Elspeth Thomson, chairwoman of the legal aid committee at the family law organisation Resolution, said that the changes were “a step in the right direction, allowing the justice system to better support at-risk and vulnerable people at perhaps the most difficult time of their lives: when the family unit is breaking down”.