We all know politicians can lie, but it's only when you know a little bit about something that you realise just what honkers they're capable of coming out with. Yesterday, on the Today programme. the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke was discussing the proposed changes to the legal aid scheme of the Legal Aid Bill. Wharra mouthful! Want to zone out? That's exactly what the Government hopes for. According to Ken, this reform "doesn't close anybody's access to justice at all." Instead, it's about [cutting down the] "amount of money we pay to lawyers". Clever that. Everyone has a story about a greedy lawyer, as QC Clarke must know. But Ken is not telling us the whole truth.
The proposed changes to legal aid will hit many vulnerable people hard. Here, I want to concentrate on its impact on victims of domestic violence. Nearly two women every minute are subject to domestic violence. Each week, two women will be killed by a current or former partner. Clare Wood – whose case inspired the controversial "Clare's Law" which will allow women to find out if their partners have a history of violence against women– is an example. She was strangled and set on fire by an abusive ex-boyfriend.
To know that a woman – someone's daughter, mum, sister – is regularly raped, beaten, threatened is heinous enough, but imagine enduring such violence – sometimes daily – in your own home, a place where you're meant to feel safe. You don't need legal aid to pack a suitcase to escape a controlling partner. But you do if you need help to fight him in the courts for, say, child safety orders. With the proposed changes to the law, victims will have to jump through impossible hoops.
If they can't answer yes to questions such as "Is there a non-molestation order in place?" or "Has there been a criminal conviction for domestic violence or child abuse?", there will be no legal aid. There are various other, unrealistic criteria. More than half of the victims currently getting legal aid say they would no longer qualify.
And all of this at a time when their self esteem is at rock bottom and their lives – and maybe that of their children – are being threatened. How very easy it is for a man like Ken Clarke and his colleagues to not understand what this means, and yet how very important it is that they should.
It's easy to think this bill doesn't affect you – but nobody plans to become a domestic violence victim. None of us knows when we may need this legal aid, or when our children might. Domestic violence happens behind closed doors: all other doors should remain open to the victims.
Annalisa Barbieri is patron of Rights of Women.
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