Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Heath: I beg to move amendment No. 123, in schedule 7, page 43, line 6, at end insert—

    'Access to Justice Act 1999

    After section 13(1)(b) of the Access to Justice Act 1999 insert—

    ''(c) for victims of domestic violence''.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 39—Access to legal assistance—

    '(1) The Secretary of State shall by order provide for victims' access to a solicitor under the Duty Solicitor Arrangements 2001 and the Legal Advice and Assistance at Police Stations Arrangements 2001 for the purposes of applying for an emergency injunction.

    (2) For the purposes of this section ''victim'' has the meaning given in section 25 of this Act.'.

Mr. Heath: New clause 39 is the operative part of this group. It deals with an issue raised by Citizens Advice, which is extremely concerned that there is a distinct problem with the community legal service and civil legal aid services offered through it.

Citizens Advice makes the point that provision is currently patchy. There are advice deserts, sometimes in the most unlikely places, where people cannot get hold of appropriate advice when necessary. Citizens Advice make the specific point that when someone needs to apply to the civil courts for an injunction to restrain domestic violence, it can sometimes be difficult to find the legal assistance to make the application. It proposes not a perfect, but an adequate response to enable that to happen.

I do not intend to make a very long speech, but it will be helpful to refer to three brief case histories that Citizens Advice has given to me, as they illustrate the problem. A west midlands citizens advice bureau helped a male client whose ex-wife's new partner was in breach of a court order concerning access to the client's children. The man was concerned about the threat of violence to his children and needed a solicitor's advice, but the CAB in question was unable to find a community legal service solicitor within a 15-mile radius. That is a serious distance in

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the context of the west midlands, although it would be less unusual in a more rural area.

Looking at another part of the county, a CAB in the east of England provided help to a client who was living with a violent husband with alcohol problems. She was increasingly concerned about the impact of her husband's violence on her three children and sought an occupation order to exclude him from the home. However, there was not a single community legal service-funded practice in the county, and she had to travel out of county to get the help that she needed and find safe child care for her children while she did so.

Lastly, a CAB in a major town in Surrey tried to find a community legal service solicitor for a female client who had been punched in the face by her ex-partner's latest girlfriend at his encouragement, leaving her frightened and living in fear of her ex-partner's return. Despite the involvement of the police and a previous history of domestic violence in the relationship, the CAB was unable to help the women to secure an injunction because it could not find a community legal service-funded solicitor to take on the case.

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I have brought those three case histories to the Committee's attention because they illustrate the problem clearly. We have now fewer community legal service-aided solicitors, particularly in family court practice. Increasingly, there are gaps in parts of the country, meaning that it is difficult to find an appropriate solicitor. If a person found himself in an emergency—I stress an emergency, because we are dealing with solicitors who may not necessarily be well versed in this area of law—he could access the police station-based duty solicitors to provide help with securing an injunction. That emergency service would provide breathing space, and safety at least, until a proper job could be done in conjunction and consultation with a family law solicitor who was available through civil legal advice. It seems that not to provide anything, and to rely on the assistance of the CAB—they do a marvellous job in this area but do not have available legally trained personnel capable of doing this job—would be an adequate, if not a perfect, response to a very inadequate situation.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response. However, I have a slight anxiety that, as the law has become increasingly specialised, the duty solicitor at a police station may not be able to provide the necessary advice on the points that the hon. Gentleman raises. I have a feeling that that may not be the case.

Mr. Heath: I readily accept that point, but they will have sufficient innate skills from their training to be able at least to steer the client through the injunction process. Although it is a far from perfect solution, it is better than a woman subjected to domestic violence having to go outside her county in order to find anybody to help her to secure an injunction. That is the limit of the point. There are two processes here: criminal legal aid and civil legal aid. I am not trying to

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confuse the two disciplines, nor to insist that all solicitors are omnicompetent. I am simply saying that, as an emergency measure, this is sufficient, and the Government might like carefully to consider it. Citizens Advice has a good point in advancing this argument.

Paul Goggins: Although I shall ask the Committee not to support the amendment and the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it, it is useful that he has been able to bring forward more evidence of the work of the citizens advice bureaux to inform our deliberations. Citizens Advice is another organisation that does tremendous work in many of our constituencies

Domestic violence proceedings are a high priority for community legal services, and that is reflected in the Legal Services Commission's family funding codes, which allows domestic violence cases to be funded more widely than most other family and non-family areas. The Government are deeply sympathetic to the intention behind the amendment, but the criminal defence service is not the appropriate means of providing it. We have already recognised that domestic violence victims need financial support to help them to take out civil orders, which is why we are spending significant sums on civil legal aid.

The community legal service expenditure on domestic violence is increasing: in 2001–02, gross expenditure was £44.3 million; in 2002–03, it was £51.6 million; and in 2003–04, it was £56.2 million. In 2003, figures indicate that of 26,500 legal aid applications for domestic violence, just over 1,000 were turned down on financial grounds, and 70 per cent. of those that were accepted were granted full funding. I agree that victims need all the support possible, but I cannot agree to the amendment.

The Government are keen to preserve the true principles behind legal aid: principally, that those accused of a criminal offence, or facing criminal proceedings before the courts, have access to the legal help that that they need. Supporting victims of domestic violence is clearly outside that remit. We are currently undertaking a fundamental review of legal aid to ensure that it is most effectively targeted at the right people, and addresses concerns about value for money. The review is about the longer term and about addressing people's needs, and domestic violence is clearly part of that.

Although we accept that victims of domestic violence need access to legal help to apply for an emergency injunction, we do not believe that criminal defence service-funded solicitors are best placed to provide that help. The comment made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield may well also be true, and increased specialisation may pose additional problems. We believe that support is best provided by quality mark solicitors who have a general civil contract with the Legal Services Commission. That funding is already in place, and, as I say, the funding for civil matters is increasing.

I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that we take the matter

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seriously. However, it is just not appropriate to try to deal with it in the way in which he seeks to.

Mr. Grieve: I am not surprised at the Minister's response. I think that there is considerable force in what he says about the mingling of civil and criminal advice by the duty solicitor not being practical.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is highlighting the crisis in civil legal aid provision around the country. I do not want to take up too much of the Committee's time—you would stop me anyway, Mr. Benton—but the reality is that in an effort to obtain quality, a number of things have happened. First, the high street solicitor providing a universal service has disappeared. In rural areas such as the hon. Gentleman's constituency, that has resulted in the disappearance of individuals who are able or willing at all to provide the service under the legal aid scheme. As a result, people do not know where to turn for help.

Other problems include general funding, as well as the willingness of solicitors to apply for the necessary quality mark to do the work. It is one area of publicly funded work where the returns are so small in relation to the overheads that people tend to remove themselves altogether—there is massive evidence of that in family law. That is outside the Minister's remit, but it is a serious issue and one that I am not sure that I have easy answers to. That is why the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is finding such cases, particularly because of the sort of area that he represents. I find such cases in my constituency, but not at the same level because there is still sufficient provision in a much more densely populated area. It is a major problem, and things are getting worse rather than better.

 
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