Reports of domestic violence will rise after April this year. That’s my prediction and it may raise a few eyebrows. However, it makes sense if you think about the knock-on effects of changes to Legal Aid in family law.
Cuts of up to £350 million in the system, due to take hold from April, will see the option of Legal Aid removed for many people in divorce proceedings. However, it will remain an option to finance divorce for a small group of people, including victims of domestic abuse – and this is wholly right.
According to statistics from the 2009/10 British Crime Survey, nearly one million women experience domestic abuse in Britain each year, and at least 750,000 children a year witness such violence. It is a horrific situation for so many people and there are agencies out there doing a lot of good work to help victims who feel trapped in abusive relationships get out and change their lives.
However, there are undoubtedly a minority who play the system and allege cases of domestic abuse that are not there. Our concern is that more people may actually do this after April if it means they can get a “subsidised” divorce. Their relationship may have broken down for any number of reasons and they want a divorce but feel they cannot afford it so they allege abuse and open the door for Legal Aid.
In this way, it does seem that the system is biased against men (though there are many cases against men, it is still the vast majority of reports that are about men abusing women). If a woman alleges abuse, the police will investigate. This could result in a referral to Social Services if there are children in the home and even a suggestion that the man undertakes an Anger Management course. This could help the partner claim legal aid in a divorce case.
There also appears to be a loophole where women who come into the country to marry a British man and are able to live here on a marriage visa, can remain after a split if they allege there is domestic violence. And in areas where police have a zero tolerance policy towards domestic abuse, they may choose to pursue a prosecution against an individual even if the original complainant does not want to pursue one.
It is a very tricky area to navigate. The system needs to do everything possible to help genuine victims of abuse and protect them and their children. However, it also needs to be robust enough so that those lodging complaints do not do so lightly and know their case will be investigated thoroughly, with consequences if they are found to be groundless. And I am not sure the current system is up to the challenge of a rise in cases from April onwards.
Family Solicitor, Warwickshire