We live in country that has progressed in leaps and bounds on feminist issues. The last century has seen a fight for basic democratic rights for women including the right to vote by the Suffragettes, as well as post WW2 legal aid schemes set up by the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 in England and Wales to help the most vulnerable in our society which established that the state had a responsibility to assist those engaged in legal disputes, including family law and divorce – issues that affected women in particular. These basic rights and entitlements are now being eroded yet again – and have an impact on those who experience domestic violence in particular.
Even today there are significant misconceptions relating to domestic violence. This ugly wrecking ball cuts across cultures, traditions, religion, belief, nationalities, age and professional backgrounds. The victims are predominantly (but not exclusively) women, suffering at the hands of their partner. We know also that domestic violence is prevalent – the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) latest figures show in 2012/13: 7 per cent of women were estimated to have experienced domestic abuse, equivalent to around 1.2 million females.
Domestic violence often takes many forms: physical, emotional, psychological, financial, disfiguration, bride burning, dowry killing, honour killing, femicide, female genital mutilation (FGM), rape in marriage, rape when not conscious (drunk/drugs), reproductive coercion, forced pregnancy, forced termination of pregnancy, wife inheritance, levirate marriage, acid attacks, immigration status control. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
When it comes to the legal process, many women find themselves isolated with no hope, low self-esteem, restricted income, little support from family/friends and with limited if any legal representation.
Legal aid as a tool is paramount to ensuring women (over age of 16 yrs) have access to legal representation when at their most vulnerable in escaping domestic violence. Unfortunately many women find it complex and almost impossible to access. There have been harsh cuts and changes to civil legal aid through LASPO 2012 (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) which has had a real and lasting effect on women’s ability to access the support they most need.
That is why the charity Rights of Women reported ‘Rights of Women’s evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (30.4.14)’: Following the implementation of LASPO, Evidencing domestic violence: a barrier to family law legal aid, demonstrated that in the first 4 months of the domestic violence evidence gateway 50 per cent of women experiencing violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence to access family law legal aid.
For this reason, in January 2014 thousands of criminal lawyers across the country went on strike against planned cuts to legal aid. This is the first time in UK history that this form of protest has ever taken place.
Many women who make the desperate attempt to leave their partner find it almost impossible to access legal aid to defend their rights and find safety from the perpetrator. Not only does does evidence need to be supplied within a tight time-frame, women face many other obstacles. Those who have left a violent partner/husband often find themselves being penalised by what they are entitled to at the end of a divorce settlement. They are often discriminated against by the system for assets and income which in reality they do not have. Many also find that they fall above the financial threshold to claim legal aid but have no recourse to income to pay for their next meal let alone legal advice or representation. Circumstances such as these highlight the unfair system we deal with whereby the perpetrator is at a financial and legal advantage.
There are, however, some alternative ways in which women may be able to access some legal support. The Sears Tooth Agreement is a slither of light for some women who have assets above the legal aid threshold but no money to pay for a lawyer, women lucky enough to find a lawyer practicing it will pay a ransom fee. The Sears Tooth Agreement is a deed that assigns the client’s winnings to the solicitor to enable the client to fund the case. This agreement, however, is not widely publicised nor is it widely available.
The ability of female victims of DV to leave the violent relationship is crucial for preventing further abuse and in many cases death. This has long term impact on society and the economy. Having access to legal representation through legal aid without financial discrimination will support the initial stages of protecting victims from violent situation; allow women to get through the divorce and participate/contribute and play a full role in community/society/economy. Legal aid should be available for all women fleeing domestic violence. Women who have assets should have the final bill taken from the settlement – this would reduce the number of women who desperately turn to lawyers that may secure most of their assets. Above all else this will allow all women regardless of financial status to leave the perpetrator without fearing financial control.
As the Fabian Women’s Network celebrates its 10 Year Anniversary next week, Seema Malhotra MP, Shadow Minister for Preventing Violence against Women and Girls, is expected to deliver a keynote speech on the topic of women and power.
As women continue to be disproportionately disadvantaged on the basis of their gender in this country, we pledge to continue our journey at the forefront of the campaign for women’s power, rights and equality and look forward to joining you in celebrating our achievements as well as pushing for greater social justice in this area for the future.
Shamshia Ali is a member of the Fabian Women’s Network executive committee and stakeholder lead
The Fabian Women’s Network celebrate their tenth anniversary on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 from 18:00 to 20:30 at Royal Society of Chemistry, London W1J 0BA. For more information click here