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Legal aid plea for domestic violence

Call for help: Sheelagh Cooper, from the Coalition for the Protection of Children, says women on financial assistance are being denied legal aid because the threshold of eligibility is out of date

A charity has renewed its call for exceptions to be made to the legal aid process in cases where vulnerable women are seeking to obtain Domestic Violence Protection Orders.

Sheelagh Cooper, from the Coalition for the Protection of Children, says some woman on financial assistance are being denied legal aid because the system for determining the threshold of eligibility is out of date.

She told The Royal Gazette that the charity had stepped in to pay for women to obtain orders through the courts.

“We are not asking for a complete overhaul of the Legal Aid Act of 1980, although clearly that is overdue,” Ms Cooper said.

“What we are asking for is that an exception be made for women who come to legal aid whose lives or whose children’s lives have been threatened and need legal help to obtain a Domestic Violence Protection Order.

“These orders can cost between $2,500 and $3,000 and women of financial assistance are in no position to cover that cost and are therefore locked out of any legal remedy involving protection from the individual threatening them.” A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Legal Affairs maintained that financial assistance was not a bar to obtaining a legal aid certificate, but acknowledged that financial assistance was one of many sources of income taken into consideration when determining eligibility for legal aid.

The spokeswoman added: “The determination as to whether someone is eligible to be in receipt of legal aid is strictly bound by the statutory regime of the Legal Aid Act 1980, the Legal Aid (General) Regulations 1980, the Legal Aid (Scale of Fees) Regulations 1980.

“A person must have a disposable income of $18,000.00 or less in order to be considered eligible. As such legal aid is not available to all individuals in the community.

“The purpose of legal aid is to assist those individuals who are declared financially unable to obtain an attorney by their own financial means and to assist them with funding an attorney to represent them in a matter before the courts. The Legal Aid Office does its utmost to assist the public as best it can, but has to be guided by its statutory regime.”

Ms Cooper recently wrote to Attorney-General Trevor Moniz on behalf of the Coalition for the Protection of Children, the Women’s Resource Centre and the Centre Against Abuse to raise concerns about the situation.

In her letter Ms Cooper claimed that the Legal Aid Office “routinely rejects” applications for Legal Aid from women who are receiving financial assistance.

She said: “When we inquired as to why this is the case we were told that these women were deemed to have income over the statutory limit.

“We were informed that this is largely attributed to the fact that under Section 9 of Schedule 3 of the Legal Aid Act 1980, the amount allowed for a rent deduction in determining disposable income is $800 per month or $9,600 annually.

“This amount has not been revised since 1980 and is clearly not in any way reflective of the actual rents currently paid.

“When a woman has no source of income other than financial assistance none of it is disposable or accessible to her to pay legal fees.

“The fact that these women are systematically denied any form of legal aid essentially locks them out of the opportunity to access legal help of any kind.

“Our main concern is that very often the applications that these women make to the Legal Aid Office are for the purpose of obtaining a Domestic Violence Protection Order.

“We are asking you to consider making an exception to the current assessment criteria for women who fall into this category and who specifically require such a protection order.”