Women under threat of violence denied legal aid
THOUSANDS of women are living with the constant fear of being attacked by their abusive former partners because they cannot afford to pay for court protection orders.
Helen Hughes, head of the Scottish Family Law Association (SFLA), says between a third and a half of women seeking a protection order are being offered only a partial contribution or nothing from the legal aid board towards the cost of the action.
They are then faced with the choice of finding several thousands of pounds to go to court, or continue to be stalked, harassed and attacked by former partners, many of whom will have received full legal aid to defend themselves when charged with assault.
The scale of the situation, branded a "scandal" by campaigners, has emerged just days after First Minister Jack McConnell revealed more than 2 million from the public purse has gone to prisoners challenging human-rights issues over the past seven years.
Civil legal-aid in Scotland is means-tested, so people with no salaries, including prisoners, or who are on income support, are entitled to full legal aid if their claim passes a "reasonableness" test. But a single women with children on a salary of, say, 18,000 is likely to find herself paying between 1,000 and 2,000 for an exclusion order or interdict to protect herself.
The SFLA and women's support groups are now calling on the Scottish Executive to end means-testing for victims of domestic violence.
Last year the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) received 1,592 protection-order applications, the vast majority from women.
SLAB says it cannot say how many grants were awarded, but Ms Hughes, a solicitor in Paisley, says large numbers of women in danger are not applying because they know they will not be able to afford their contributions.
"I see about ten new clients a week. These are women who are subject to ongoing harassment, abuse and violence from their former partners. It might be that their children are also at risk.
"But because the legal aid is means-tested, between a half and a quarter of those are required to make, usually significant, contributions towards the costs of protective court orders. Most of these will not be able to pay and end up living in fear. There are undoubtedly thousands of women every year across Scotland who are in this situation."
She added: "People are under the misapprehension that this just affects women living in council schemes. But that's simply not true.
"I'm seeing women whose partners are senior police officers, doctors, lawyers. Means-testing should be scrapped when it comes to legal aid in domestic-abuse cases."
While women on income support automatically receive full legal aid, many single parents on low salaries are forced to pay, with child support and tax credits effectively added to their salary.
Given the already difficult financial position many of these women are in, following the break-up of a marriage or long-term relationship, experts say this is leaving thousands every year having to suffer the threat of violence from former partners.
Louise Johnson, a spokeswoman for Scottish Women's Aid, said the situation was "perverse".
"An abused person should not have to pay at all. You have the situation where the perpetrator of a criminal act will get legal aid to defend the case but the victim who goes to court to seek an order stopping him from coming to the house or approaching her has to pay for it."
A spokesman for SLAB said the rules governing eligibility for domestic-abuse cases were currently being reviewed, but he said it was unlikely that means-testing would end.
"Women's Aid have made representations to us and the Executive, and it is something ministers have looked at."
Dr Mairead Tagg, a social psychologist based in Glasgow, said the cost of court orders were often much higher when children were involved.
"These cases, which involve difficult contact and residence issues, can last years and years. The majority of women just cannot afford that."
Kenny MacAskill, SNP justice spokesman, said: "It's unjust. Legal aid is cash-limited and comes from hardworking folks' taxes who would much prefer it was used for those who need protection, not those who are, frankly, at it."
'The system penalises you because abuse means you have become a single mother'
AMANDA, from Paisley, lived under the shadow of abuse for years. The problems began when her partner's recreational use of the drug cocaine grew into a 500-a-day habit.
"He became really aggressive, and started abusing me, physically, mentally and emotionally," she said.
On one occasion her bed was slashed, another time he threatened to petrol bomb the house.
He called her almost hourly to find out where she was, constantly accusing her of having affairs.
She said her partner became increasingly paranoid. "He'd come in at three in the morning and wake me up, saying we had to talk. Accusing me of this and that. It was all rubbish."
They split and he sold the house, but he continued to harass her. Then, last year, the abuse turned nastier.
On Mother's Day, his daughter let him into the house and he headbutted Amanda, accusing her of sleeping with his friend.
"I got the police involved but when they came round he was never there. They said they couldn't prove anything. It got so bad I couldn't go out of the house. I had to take medication before going out because I was so scared.
"He'd appear behind the bushes. He'd be at my bedroom window. It was horrendous."
Respite came when he was charged with assault and given bail on the condition that he did not approach her.
But the fear returned when his community sentence expired.
At that point she contacted a local family law specialist with the intention of gaining an interdict to prevent him coming near her.
Alison's salary was 17,000, but despite the fact she has to look after two teenager children, she was ruled ineligible for full legal aid.
The fact she was receiving 780 in child benefit and 1,560 worth of tax credits counted against her in the legal aid board's calculations, meaning she would have to pay 1,200 to claim for an order.
"I'm struggling to get by as it is, being a working single mum living in rented accommodation. I just can't afford it.
"It think the system is shocking. It penalises you because the abuse means you have become a single mother.
"I know I am not the only one. The fear these women are experiencing is just terrible.
"Thankfully my contacts in support groups and friends have helped me get through it. Many others don't have anyone to help them."
(Amanda is not her real name)
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