If the Coalition wants to win back women voters, they must ditch the disastrous domestic violence provisions in their Legal Aid Bill.
Put simply the way the changes are currently framed will mean most victims of violence will be denied legal aid and forced to represent themselves against their abuser in the family courts.
So what are these new rules?
To get legal aid a domestic violence sufferer must have obtained one of four kinds of civil injunctions or a criminal conviction against the perpetrator. Alternatively, she will qualify if she is being safeguarded by a multi-agency risk assessment conference (a MARAC) or there must has been the establishment of domestic violence as fact in the family courts. MARACs are used for a few exceptionally serious cases. Findings of fact will be a diminishing category since it is for family courts that legal aid will now routinely be refused.
As most people now know, domestic violence is grossly under-reported. Most sufferers are too afraid to complain. Few obtain one of the four kinds of civil injunction required by the proposed legal aid rules and few undertake let alone sustain criminal proceedings.
It is those who are most afraid who will be denied legal aid to seek help in the family courts.
Even a victim who has made a report will have difficulty under the new law. Although Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly says his rules will test the merits of a case, they are, in truth, an arbitrary exclusion from eligibility. An overwhelming allegation of domestic violence, supported by impeccable witness evidence, will not, under this law, qualify for legal aid.
The victim may go to her doctor repeatedly battered and bruised. A & E may be used to seeing her with boot-marks on her face.
Djanogly is : "Not persuaded that the medical professionals would be best placed to assess whether domestic violence has occurred. Although they may witness injuries, it may be difficult for them to determine how they occurred "
What if they are certain that her injuries come from domestic violence? She still wouldn't get legal aid .
Nor is there any point in evidence from a neighbour, who may have heard blows, sheltered her or even run in and rescued her from violence. That police who may have attended, saw him punch her, saw her injured and arrested him, all that is insufficient.
"A police investigation could be inconclusive or the police might determine that domestic violence has not in fact taken place" he said in committee. But if they are certain it did take place it doesn't help.
He may be charged and attend a perpetrator programme to avoid court. And under these rules the charge-sheet and his attendance on the programme will cut no ice.
If she asks for an injunction, judges often tell a perpetrator that he can save the costs of a hearing by undertaking not to hurt her in future. The Court registers the undertaking; it is contempt of court if he breaks it. But it will not help her to get legal aid.
Should she get admission to a refuge, though the staff will be experienced in assessing complaints, it will not get her legal aid.
"To include admission to a refuge in the criteria would be to rely on self-reporting." says Djanogly
Thus a victim may have eye witnesses, police and medical evidence, records from refuges and perpetrator programmes, undertakings not to assault and photographs of injuries but she will not get legal aid.
Police, CPS and the courts determine whether a criminal case proceeds. All she can do to be eligible for legal aid is to apply for a civil injunction. How would a victim proceed if she was courageous enough to do that?
She would use legal aid. By crazy circularity, Djanogly's law is that a person who cannot get legal aid for family proceedings by self-reporting, can get legal aid for an injunction by self-reporting. Her word is quite good enough to bring proceedings that first time round and once she has the order she will qualify for legal aid a second time, for the family court.
It is hardly a saving on the departmental budget to require people to go to court to prove that their complaint is good enough to be funded to go to court again.
These provisions are shameful and silly. Legal aid must be given where there is evidence of domestic violence. This exclusionary law breaks Kenneth Clarke's earlier promise to the contrary. It is the latest sexist mixup from the all-male MoJ, following the debacle of Clarke saying that real rape is a man jumping out of a bush and Crispin Blunt advocating anonymity for rape defendants. This is Djanogly's Law: Criteria for family legal aid must be not to give support to abused women but, as he said last week :
"designed...to minimise the risk of false allegations" of domestic violence.
Truly a decimation of the rights of women.