Thousands of domestic abuse survivors denied help after legal aid cuts, study finds

Exclusive: Research calculates proportion of domestic abuse cases funded by legal aid has fallen from 75% to 47% in 10 years

Tens of thousands of domestic abuse survivors have been “forced to continue living under the shadow of their abusers” in the decade since access to legal aid was scaled back, research suggests.

About 34,000 people are estimated to have been denied support allowing them to seek orders to help remove attackers out of the family home or prevent them from returning at will.

The House of Commons library also calculated that since the law was changed 10 years ago, the proportion of domestic abuse cases funded by legal aid had fallen from 75% to 47%.

Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow attorney general, blamed the “wilful cruelty” of the coalition government, which she said had been “perpetuated by their successors in the current cabinet”.

She added that urgent reform of the legal aid system was needed to “avoid a second lost decade for the survivors of domestic abuse and their children”.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act was introduced in May 2012 and sought to impose capital and income limits for applicants for civil legal aid.

On the 10th anniversary of the legislation coming into effect, the Commons library was asked to review the impact. It found that real-terms spending on civil legal aid for domestic abuse cases had fallen by 37% from 2010-11 to 2020-21.

Officials said it was “not possible to say exactly how many people have become ineligible who would otherwise have been able”. But they found the ratio of domestic abuse cases that received legal aid compared with those without it fell from 0.75 in 2012-13 to 0.5 in 2020-21.

If the ratio had stayed the same, the Commons library forecasted that 41,000 more people would have been eligible for legal aid in domestic abuse cases.

Excluding roughly 17% of recipients who are alleged perpetrators, it concluded: “Around 34,000 alleged victims might have been eligible for legal aid since 2012-13, were it not for the changes brought in.”

The true number could be higher, the findings said.

A note about the statistics added it was “likely that some people are put off applying to the family court to settle matters where domestic abuse is involved because they already know they are not eligible for legal aid”.

Thornberry said the law change had been pushed through by ministers who were “hellbent on driving through their austerity agenda on the backs of the most vulnerable in society, even at the expense of their duty to protect the safety of women”.

She said tens of thousands of women were being “forced to continue living under the shadow of their abusers”.

Thornberry added: “We need urgent reform of our legal aid system to avoid a second lost decade for the survivors of domestic abuse and their children. We cannot have another 10 years when those women desperately turning to the government for help against their abusers find the door slammed in their face.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “More than 95% of applications for legal aid in domestic abuse cases are successful and we are making millions more people eligible through our changes to the means test.

“The Domestic Abuse Act is transforming our response to this terrible crime – redefining economic abuse, improving protection for victims and bringing more perpetrators to justice.”