Monday 31st July 2017: Today, Women’s Aid, the national organisation supporting women and children affected by domestic violence, responded to the publication of the FLAC Annual Report 2016 and the recent move by the Legal Aid Board to restrict access to Legal Aid in family law matters. The organisation welcomed the publication of the FLAC Annual Report 2016 and the spotlight it has put on the long waiting times faced by victims of domestic violence and the fees they have to pay to access legal aid. Commenting on the waiting times and fees in the civil legal aid system, Margaret Martin, Director of Women’s Aid says:
“In 2016, 49% of contacts with Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline and One to One Services (Dublin based) related to the legal system and we are very concerned by delays in the legal aid process for those women who are seeking protection from domestic violence. Since September 2013, there has been a 160% increase in the application contribution (from €50 to €130). This is challenging for women we support as they simply cannot pay. We know that it is in a person’s best interests to have legal representation in court, especially where there is domestic violence, and this is reflected in the high amount of advocacy and referrals we have with Legal Aid. We help women make applications, and apply for waivers, some of which are granted and some not, and support women in using the private practitioners scheme.”
Women’s Aid also drew attention to the policy of the Legal Aid Board to only allow one certificate a year as being problematic for women experiencing domestic violence who are in court in relation to separation and child related matters. Ms Martin explains:
“It is more likely that their cases and the ensuing child care matters and separations will be before the court because alternative resolutions such as mediation are not appropriate. They are also likely to have more hearings and to take longer to resolve, as is reflected in the multiple hearings there can be for one matter. There are long waiting times at the Law Centres meaning cases are being adjourned as there is no legal representative available. This has huge impact as it causes delays in resolving issues, for example regarding child care and property matters. In a few cases Judges have ordered the matter be heard with the person not having representation.”
Pointing to the existence of an unfair, two-tiered legal aid system for those involved in civil law matters, Ms Martin says:
“People who are charged with crimes have rightly access to free and immediate consultations with Legal Aid solicitors, do not have to pay and do not have to wait. People involved in civil proceedings, including victims of domestic violence escaping an abusive relationship, face long waiting times, have to pay fees and at the end of a judicial separation case, if there is a split of assets, such as the family home, a further financial contribution is sought. The physical courts facilities are also quite incomparable.”
Commenting on the move last week, now deferred, by the Legal Aid Board to restrict access to legal aid in some civil law cases, Ms Martin says:
“Women's Aid is relieved that the cuts to legal representation in Family Law cases recently announced by the Legal Aid Board have been deferred. However, any alternative measures must not target the most vulnerable cases again. While cases involving ‘a domestic violence remedy or enforcement of maintenance’ would not have been affected such a limited exemption would still leave many vulnerable women without vital legal representation in Custody, Access and Guardianship cases and in new Maintenance cases. It is essential that any further financial review of the services provided by the Board, such cases are always provided with legal representation.
A woman leaving an abusive partner has a range of legal matters that need to be addressed to provide her with the safety and stability that she needs to rebuild a life for herself and her children: it makes no sense to recognise her vulnerability and give her legal support in relation to orders under the Domestic Violence Act while denying her the same support in relation to equally important matters such as Custody, Access and Maintenance.”
For a woman leaving an abusive relationship the lack of representation can have severe consequences. Women going to Court to get protection under the Domestic Violence Act and/or to address child related matters in a context of domestic violence are often terrified of the abuser. They are also worried about becoming homeless, poverty, being unable to look after the children financially, the risks posed to the children by unsafe arrangements and the strains of ongoing litigation. Ms Martin explains:
“Financial abuse is often part and parcel of domestic violence, and therefore women leaving an abusive partner often do not have the means to pay for a private solicitor. Often the abuser is better off financially, in the absence of Legal Aid this will mean that a woman leaving a situation of domestic violence will have to represent herself, while her abuser is legally represented, in critical matters such as Custody, Access and Maintenance. If he is also not represented, she will have to face him directly in court, which she may be terrified of. Alternatively in the absence of representation she may agree to mediation with a man she is afraid of, which may expose her to further abuse during the process and may result in dangerous arrangements for herself and her children.”
Ms Martin adds:
“Spurious and prolonged legal proceedings are used by violent partners to continue abusing women after separation; lack of legal representation in these matters will make this tactic more effective and wear women down both emotionally and financially. Non payers of maintenance and parties creating difficulties with access will succeed in their continuing abuse as many people do not have the confidence or capacity to present their own cases. Lack of representation in relation to Access and Custody may mean arrangements are made that are not safe for children and their mothers and may give raise to Child Protection issues.”
Ms Martin stresses:
“The lack of Maintenance may mean being unable to pay rent or mortgage and becoming homeless. As women have to apply for Maintenance before being granted One Parent Family payment, delays in Maintenance proceedings will also affect social welfare payments and increase the risk of poverty. Lack of income and the risk of homelessness are barriers to leaving domestic violence.”
Women’s Aid also believes any cuts to the Private Practitioners Panel would also certainly increase the already unacceptable waiting times in the Law Centres. Moreover, an increase in self represented litigants would increase the already unsustainable workload of the judiciary.
Women’s Aid is an organisation to the forefront of dealing with domestic violence, its consequences and impact on women and children, and it is at a loss to understand why such neglect and disparities exist in the legal system for victims of domestic violence. Ms Martin concludes:
“A system that makes victims wait, pay for or threatens to deny access to legal representation clearly shows it is unfit for purpose. Those in charge of the system seem to fail to understand, or disregard, the difficult and long journey to safety and financial stability for women and children affected by domestic violence. The current situation is also contrary to the Governments obligations under the Istanbul Convention. This must change if Ireland is serious about safeguarding women and children from domestic abuse.”
Last week’s events will have led to confusion and vulnerability for women experiencing domestic violence. Anyone affected can call the Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline 1800 341 900, open 7 days a week, www.WomensAid.ie.
For more information: Contact Christina Sherlock 087 919 2457 or email email@example.com.
Notes for producers/editors: