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Legal Aid

Legal Aid

Legal aid is available to most victims of domestic abuse, providing vital financial help during a time of great emotional turmoil in life.

The system is set up so that most of the taxpayer-funded help goes to those on low incomes; those with more financial resources are expected to contribute to the legal costs. A government website gives you an idea if you qualify for legal aid in England and Wales.

NCDV'S Role

To help you further, the NCDV’s free service is geared towards assisting you, as a litigant in person, obtain an emergency injunction against your abuser. We also have a solicitors’ panel consisting of legal aid solicitors who will provide you with publicly funded legal representation.

If you are not eligible for legal aid, or cannot afford the contributions, we will still help you for free. One of our caseworkers will contact you by phone to help you prepare your witness statement and the relevant documents for the application.

Legal Aid Coverage

Legal aid will cover the costs of legal advice, preparation of paperwork and getting someone to negotiate or speak for you, including in court. Legal aid may also cover advice and help on other family matters such as finances, mediation, divorce proceedings and when a child is at risk of being taken into care.

Means Test

The extent of aid given is decided on a case-by-case basis and is means tested, except for proceedings involving children in care and child abduction.

Whether you qualify for free public funding or have to make a contribution to the legal aid will depend on your income, benefits, savings, investments, and any property you own along with your disposable income after your housing and childcare costs are taken into account.

Merits Test

In addition, the government’s Legal Aid Agency (LAA) will conduct a merits test to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your case, such as the chances of success and if the costs are reasonable for the benefit you are likely to gain. Applications from people suffering from or at risk of domestic violence have a good chance of passing the test.

Limitations

It is possible you will have to make a capital contribution (based on the value of your house and/or savings) upfront or a monthly contribution (based on your disposable income) whilst the case is on-going.

Whatever the situation, a legal aid solicitor will be able to advise you on what will be covered by public funding.

If you are awarded money or property, you may have to pay back some of the legal aid. In those cases the LAA will make a claim known as a statutory charge. When property has been awarded to you, payment can be deferred and the debt set against the value of your home, similar to a mortgage.

Should legal aid be withdrawn, then you may have to repay the full costs.

Other Sources

A government website tells you where you can find a solicitor in your area with a legal aid contract.

The Rights of Women support organisation has prepared a comprehensive document detailing the legal aid system.

As different rules apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is wise to refer to information provided by the devolved Scottish government and the Northern Ireland Department of Justice before seeking legal advice.

By Fiona Bawden, Times Online (8th May 2007)

“Steve Connor, a student at City Law School, is a man on a mission. Six years ago he was a fairly directionless 27-year-old. Today, as well as taking the Bar Vocational Course, he is chairman of the National Centre for Domestic Violence, a ground-breaking organisation that he dragged into existence after a friend could not get legal help to protect her from an abusive partner.

Connor’s route to the Bar has been circuitous. In 2001 he returned from a year in Australia (he says that he would not dignify describing it as a gap year), and took a job as a process server in South London. The job (“I just saw it advertised in the paper”) was not quite as dull as it sounds. On one occasion he was threatened with a machete, on another, he was nearly stabbed by a man he had arranged to meet on Clapham Common to serve with a non-molestation order: “He’d seemed really friendly on the phone…”

The turning point in his life came when a friend, who was being abused by her partner, turned to him for support. Connor went with her to the police. She did not want to press criminal charges so the police suggested that she visit a solicitor to take out a civil injunction. “We must have seen 12 solicitors in a morning. We just went from one to the next to the next to the next. Everyone was very eager to help until we sat down to fill in the forms for the legal aid means test,” he says. The woman, who had a small child, did not qualify for public funding. But, Connor says, her financial situation as it appeared on paper did not bear any relation to her financial situation in reality. “She had a part-time job and she and her partner owned their home. Yet she didn’t have any money. Her boyfriend was very controlling and controlled all the money; he kept the chequebooks and didn’t let her have access to the bank account.”

The injustice of the situation got under Connor’s skin. “I just couldn’t believe that there was no help available to people who did not qualify for public funds but could not afford to pay.

I just kept feeling that this must be able to be sorted if only someone would address it.”That “someone” turned out to be him.

In 2002, thanks entirely to Connor’s doggedness, the London Centre for Domestic Violence was formed. It started out with him and a friend, but is now a national organisation, covering 27 counties, and has helped approximately 10,000 victims last year to take out injunctions against their partners.

NCDV now has nine full-time staff, 12 permanent volunteers and has trained over 5000 law and other students as McKenzie Friends to accompany unrepresented victims into court. We have also trained over 8000 police officers in civil remedies available regarding domestic violence. The National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) has branches in London, Guildford and Manchester and is on track to have branches in 16 areas within the next two years.

NCDV specialises exclusively in domestic violence work and could be characterised as a cross between McDonald’s and Claims Direct. The high degree of specialisation means that its processes are streamlined: clients can be seen quickly and the work is done speedily and cheaply. “Sometimes, we will have one of our trained McKenzie Friends at a court doing 10 applications in one day,” Connor says.

Clients are not charged for the service. NCDV staff take an initial statement: clients who qualify for legal aid are referred to a local firm; those that don’t get free help from the centre itself. It runs on a shoestring, heavily reliant on volunteers and capping staff salaries at £18,000 a year.

Steve expects to qualify as a barrister this summer and hopes that having a formal legal qualification will give the centre added clout. “We are already acknowledged as experts and consulted at a high level, so I thought it would be helpful if I could back that up by being able to say I’m a barrister,” he says. He is just about to complete a one-year full-time BVC course at the City Law School (formerly the Inns of Court Law School) and, all being well, should be called to the Bar in July. Although Connor sees his long-term future as a barrister, he says that he has no immediate plans to practise. “I want to get NCDV running on a fully national level. Then I may take a step back and have a career at the Bar.”