Fears for abuse victims amid bitter legal aid row
- Credit: Getty/Archant
Domestic abuse victims may never see justice if disruption to legal aid continues.
That is the warning from experts across the city as 2,500 barristers continue industrial action over legal aid funding.
The row has erupted following cuts to the service which is provided to those who cannot afford representation in court - and future funding.
Their move has been slammed as "unnecessary and irresponsible" by justice secretary Dominic Raab.
But under-pressure lawyers have accused ministers of dragging their feet over a 15pc boost in rates for legal aid - a policy recommended by an independent review.
The result, charities and the industry alike have warned, is that the court system may "grind to a halt".
For some victims an already terrifying process has just got harder, said Mandy Proctor, chief executive of Norwich-based domestic abuse services charity Leeway.
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She said: “Delays can have a big impact on whether someone will choose to go through the court system.
"Many survivors have rebuilt their lives and going through the courts at a later date brings the abuse and the memories of it up again. If you’re in a good place, you don’t want to put yourself through that ordeal and have to face the perpetrator again.
"The delays can also stop survivors engaging with the process entirely.
"If they know that it may take a couple of years before their case is heard they may choose not to pursue it any further.
"For those going through the system and encountering delays, it prolongs the worry and prevents them from getting the closure they need to move on."
She added there is a concern that abusers will get away with their crimes: "It is important that perpetrators are held to account for their actions and don’t just get away with it.
"If people can see that domestic abuse is taken seriously and there are strong sentences for perpetrators, then it gives hope to other survivors."
And already this week victims have spoken of having to return to their abusers, according to Lorraine Curston the founder of domestic abuse support charity Dawn's New Horizon.
Ms Curston said: "Twice this week I have had people asking for my help because they can't get legal aid.
"And there's nothing I can do, it's so unfair.
"A person came to see me and said that their abusive partner had been given legal aid to defend themselves but the victim couldn't get support to put it through the courts."
The boss of the Sprowston-based charity added: "I speak to a lot of lawyers and barristers across the city in the work that I do and I know this isn't a decision they've taken lightly.
"But something has to change. In the years I've done this week I've seen the cuts impact people again and again."
And because legal aid often supports those on the lowest income, the industry is concerned that other vulnerable people may similarly suffer.
Matthew Gowen, a barrister and partner at Norwich-based law firm Birketts, said: "Without legal aid there would be a very large proportion of society who would not be able to defend themselves against eviction, have assistance dealing with issues involving their children, or help with debt if their home is at risk.
Mr Gowen, who is also head of Birketts’ Regulatory and Corporate Defence team, added: "It is important that people understand what this action actually means - criminal barristers are not on strike, they are continuing to conduct cases in which they were instructed at the outset.
"What they are not doing is accepting ‘returns’.
"This means cases in which barrister was instructed, but due to when the case has been listed, they are unavailable, due to other work commitments, and therefore need to ‘return’ (give) the case to another barrister."
Mr Gowen also highlighted that the returns process is goodwill and carried out by lawyers to keep the system moving.
How has legal aid been cut through the years?
Legal aid was introduced in 1949.
Total legal payments by 1986 had risen to £419m a year - more than half of this was on criminal cases.
In 2012 the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) was introduced. It was intended to reduce legal aid spending by £350m.
But what has the impact of that been?
Under the original outline 80pc of the population qualified for legal aid.
By the early 1990s this fell to 45pc.
And by 2018 it was estimated by industry leaders that just 20pc qualified.
As well as eligibility the scope of legal aid also changed.
At one point legal aid covered the majority of civil cases - now only family cases which include violence are covered.
Likewise immigration cases are now only covered if they involve claims for asylum, human rights issues or domestic violence