A charity has warned that thousands of domestic violence victims are being "forced to stay with their abuser" because they cannot afford legal support. Domestic Violence Assist (also known as DV Assist), who help victims apply for court ordered protection, claim that only 40% of victims referred to them qualify for legal aid, leaving 60% of victims struggling to pay for a private solicitor.
Luis Labaton, chief executive of DV Assist, said (via Sky News) it is "grossly and patently" unfair that so many victims are denied access to legal aid. Because of this, he stresses that on an "almost daily" basis, victims are left with no protection and forced to return home to stay with their abuser, because they cannot afford private legal fees, nor are they able to represent themselves at court.
"Most [victims] don't feel confident or comfortable in applying for an order themselves and representing themselves in court. Only a tiny number of people choose this route," Labaton pointed out, "The rest – amounting to thousands of people each year – end up having no protection and having to remain with their abuser."
He continued: "They are left extremely distressed. It's a horrendous situation. They are being badly let down by the legal aid system."
Currently, applicants are only eligible for civil legal aid if their monthly disposable income does not exceed £730 (according to the Ministry of Justice). But, Labaton says this figure doesn't take into consideration other outgoing costs that victims might be dealing with, including pre-existing debt and living expenses like weekly food shops. "Too many people on low incomes are simply not able to access public funds," he added.
In response to the claims, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice told Sky News that: "While more than 95% of applications for legal aid in domestic abuse cases are successful, we are reviewing the means test to see how we can best support victims."
Despite this, Labaton emphasises the need for change sooner rather than later, revealing that DV Assist has seen a 50% rise in demand for court ordered protection in the past year. At the moment, the charity receives approximately 3000 domestic abuse referrals (from agencies including the police, social services and housing associations) each month, which has risen from 2000 per month in 2020.
As well as a sharp increase in referrals, Labaton explained how abusers are finding new ways to harm their victims, such as restricting heating and hot water access using remote smart technology.
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