While the proposed legal aid reforms will affect hundreds and thousands of people up and down the country women’s support and advocacy groups have warned that women are particularly at risk: those who have suffered from domestic abuse or rape, single mothers, women fleeing to or trafficked into the UK and sex workers.
The loss of trusted lawyers, restricted judicial reviews and residency tests can only further isolate women who need professional support and representation when a shrinking state is deciding on their welfare.
Women forced from their homes following domestic abuse use judicial reviews to force local authorities to house them or prevent them taking their child away. Victims of trafficking risk being treated as criminals or illegal aliens and sent to prison or quickly deported without representation as they will fail the residency test. And sex workers, often mistrustful of the authorities, will lose their trusted solicitors through the new Price-Competitive Tendering system.
Sian Evans, from Women Against Rape (WAR), described the proposals as a ‘rapists’ charter’. She said women rely on legal aid to force the police to investigate allegations of rape or the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary recently produced a report criticising Kent Constabulary for failing to investigate violent crime, including rape, to meet targets.
In her response to the consultation, she wrote: ‘Legal aid for JRs and other legal actions has enabled rape survivors to bring precedent-setting cases often challenging decisions by the authorities. With the cuts proposed, women who are not rich won’t be able to hold rapists to account and the criminal justice authorities to account – this will put women and children at further risk. [These proposals] are a rapist’s charter.’
She said legal aid is also used to ensure vulnerable women do not have their benefits cut by local authorities saying ‘the withdrawal of benefits are cutting off women and children’s vital routes to safety making us much more vulnerable to rape, domestic violence and child abuse.’
Single mothers will also be hit according to advocacy and support group Single Mothers’ Self-Defence. It said many single mothers live in poverty and rely on legal aid in the family courts or through judicial review to keep their children, to prevent them from being evicted from their homes and to stop them from losing their benefits.
Prostitutes, a particularly vulnerable group often suffering from addiction and emotional problems and in-and-out of the criminal justice system, rely on lawyers that support groups have built-up trust with over time. A spokeswomen for the English Collective of Prostitutes, who act as a union and support group for sex workers, said: “At the moment we are able to refer them to specialist lawyers, but if these proposals go through there will be no choice and there is so much ignorance about the prostitution laws coupled with a lot of prejudice towards sex workers. [Solicitors] often just tell women to plead guilty as if it doesn’t really matter if you get criminalised, but of course it matters. Once you have a criminal record the chances of you being able to leave prostitution and get another job are reduced.”
Sian Evans also warned that the residency test will put women and children’s lives are at risk. She said without legal aid it will be even easier for the UK Border Agency to send back genuine asylum seekers to dangerous and war-torn countries where they have been tortured, raped and seen their families killed. Black Women’s Rape Action Project claim at least 70 per cent of women seeking asylum in the UK are rape survivors many of whom rely on judicial review to have their claim properly assessed.
Evans said: “People’s lives are at steak. It’s a recipe for rape and torture.” She dismissed the justice minister’s claims that the public had lost confidence in the legal aid system saying they understand if the consequences are spelt out to them. She said: “If you tell them ‘if we hadn’t got legal aid my son would be dead now’ I think the public would understand. We’ve got rape survivors who are ready to stand up and speak out.”