Women facing domestic violence will be at disadvantage 21st July 2011: The UK government’s planned cuts to its legal aid scheme will majorly cause inconvenience to migrant and refugee women, who may not have much knowledge of the UK legal system and family support or face language barriers the campaigners assert.
The modification, suggested by the government in November, would cut legal aid from civil areas including immigration, housing, employment and debt, unless a person’s life, home or freedom is at risk.
Lawyers and aid organisations dispute the scheme’s harshest cuts since its 1949 inception will deny some half a million people justice.
Zrinka Bralo, executive director of the London-based Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum in London, told TrustLaw that the reform was a major shift and posed a serious threat to fundamental principles of equal access to justice.
Bralo added that the migrant and refugee women were disadvantaged because they may not speak English well enough. They were not even aware what support and protection is available to them, they may be traumatised and may not have support networks of family and friends.
Under the proposals, private family law cases would be deprived of legal aid funding unless domestic violence was involved.
Bralo asserted migrant and refugee women who experience domestic violence will be at loss because their immigration status is linked to that of their husbands, or claimed by their husbands.
She added even if they leave their partners and get help, free immigration advice and representation may not be available to help them secure stay independently. Bralo expressed concern that changes to the system would harm the community advice sector, creating confusion and complications that will leave vulnerable people in “advice limbo.”
Bralo pointed out charities that gave refugees and migrant’s free legal advice had already failed due to changes and constraints in how legal aid was funded.
She said that Tens of thousands of vulnerable people were in a legal advice “no man’s land” after last year’s closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice and the recent closure of the Immigration Advisory Service.
UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said the cuts to the 2.1-billion-pound legal aid scheme would check costly and often unnecessary litigation at taxpayers’ expense, saying the system was one of the most expensive in the world.
The government has suggested pro bono work could help cover shortfalls created by the cuts, which are designed to reduce legal aid costs by 350 million pounds within four years.
But many lawyers disagree, pointing out that law firms that do pro bono would not have the expertise to represent legal aid clients alone, and the Law Society, which represents solicitors, has urged the government to reconsider the plans which it has called “ill-conceived and unfair.”