Legal aid cuts denying vulnerable women access to justice, says thinktank | Legal aid

Vulnerable women in England and Wales, including survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, are being denied justice because of cuts to the civil legal aid budget, a think tank has said.

The Women’s Budget Group says a decade on from major changes to legal aid, women have been disproportionately affected, leaving them without essential support to fight discrimination, violence and housing insecurity.

For its report, Gender Gaps in Access to Civil Legal Justice, published on Thursday, the think tank conducted an online survey of 115 organizations, services and individuals in the field and found widespread concern about barriers to justice.

It found that 85% of respondents said vulnerable women were unable to access civil legal aid, while 77% said a significant consequence of the legal aid changes was women reaching crisis points or problems escalating before they received any legal help or advice.

Dr Sara Reis, the head of policy and research and deputy director of the Women’s Budget Group, said: “The report reveals a troubling reality: the legal aid changes introduced in 2012 have cut a critical lifeline for vulnerable women including survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and asylum-seeking women, leaving them without essential legal support in the face of discrimination, violence and housing insecurity.

“Policy makers should widen the eligibility criteria for legal aid, particularly for employment discrimination, and provide training and education for professionals to resolve the issues faced by women sooner and close the gender civil justice gap.”

Employment, including maternity or pregnancy discrimination, was identified by respondents as one of the most common issues for which women seek help. Others were housing, including advice on no-fault crime notices and rent arrears, social security and benefits, immigration and asylum, and private family law, including domestic violence.

Respondents to the survey included advice services, law firms, trade unions and academics. The report, funded by the Community Justice Fund, identified as significant barriers for women attempting to access legal aid:

  • Ineligibility, for example some employment discrimination not being included in legal aid.

  • Inaccessibility due to insufficient legal aid providers.

  • Lack of awareness and sign posting of what qualifies for legal aid.

As the scope of what is covered by legal aid has narrowed, the number of providers has plummeted, creating “deserts” where there is little or no access to free legal advice.

Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Laspo), which came into effect in 2013, certain areas of the law were excluded from legal aid. Before it was introduced the Ministry of Justice’s equality impact assessment found that women would be worst affected.

Clare Carter, the chief executive of the Access to Justice Foundation, which hosts the Community Justice Fund, said: “Legal interventions hold the potential to address issues uniquely important to women, and advice services can play a fundamental role in improving women’s lives.

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“Women experiencing employment disputes are more vulnerable to discrimination and less favorable treatment, and migrant women have specific needs relating to accessing welfare benefits and their experiences of trafficking and domestic violence.”

The report’s recommendations include increased investment, more research into the impact of Laspo on women’s employment outcomes and increasing access to employment discrimination.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “In the last year alone, we have invested £813m in civil legal aid to make sure those who need legal advice the most can access it and we are expanding the scope so that millions more vulnerable people can access vital support, including families and domestic abuse victims seeking the protection of the courts.

“At the same time, we have injected millions of grant funding into not-for-profit organizations who provide specialist legal advice and play a crucial role in supporting women’s access to justice.”

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