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Legal aid eligibility rules under the spotlight in Archers’ custody battle

A real-life Helen would be left to face her abuser without solicitor representation, says Law Society

14 September 2016

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As characters from popular radio drama The Archers prepare to face off in a custody battle, the unfairness of rules determining who is eligible for legal aid has been highlighted by the Law Society.

Helen Titchener, a character in the show, was recently acquitted of attempted murder after stabbing her husband, Rob, following years of emotional and physical abuse. Now Rob and Helen must face each other in the family court to decide custody of their sons Henry and Jack

Legal aid for most family law cases was abolished following the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). One of the few exceptions is if documentary evidence of abuse can be produced.

The granting of legal aid is subject to a means test but if someone can produce documentary evidence that they are the victim of abuse they would qualify for legal aid.

'Current legal aid rules mean that abusive Rob could qualify for legal aid to have a solicitor represent him, but Helen would not,' said Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society.

'In Ambridge, Rob will clearly be able to do that. He was stabbed by Helen. But the emotional abuse Rob has perpetrated will not give rise to any documentary evidence. A real-life Helen would be left to face her abuser without a solicitor to represent her.'

Evidence from the charity Rights of Women shows 40 per cent of victims still do not have the required forms of evidence to access legal aid, despite amendments to the regulations in April 2014.

Moreover, a legal needs survey by Ipsos MORI recently found that two in three domestic abuse victims are unaware of their legal aid eligibility - increasing their risk of harm.

'Without legal aid, women are unable to access family law remedies, which are vital in order to help them escape from violent relationships and protect their children,' added Miller. 'They are being forced to face their perpetrators in court without legal representation.

'Legal aid is a lifeline for victims of abuse. We are currently in constructive discussions with the Ministry of Justice to amend the rules. We hope that the case of Rob and Helen will help to drive home just why current rules are problematic and that they must to change.'

The BBC Radio 4 show has come under fire of late for its misrepresentation of the criminal justice system and sidelining of solicitors in favour of the barrister profession. Lawyers will likely be listening in to the latest courtroom instalment of the drama ready to pick apart any procedural inaccuracies.

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