District Judge Simon Reed has criticised the Legal Aid system in a written ruling on a case in which a woman accusing her former partner of rape and sexual assault was forced to appear in court without legal support.
The case was considering the level of contact that the woman’s 10-year-old daughter should have with her father, the accused. When facing questions relating to the sexual abuse, the woman was unable to continue giving evidence.
In his written ruling, the judge noted that neither party could afford a lawyer and so both had to represent themselves as they weren’t eligible for Legal Aid. He said: “I found this surprising in the mother’s case in particular, given that I was told she was dependent entirely on state benefits and yet failed the means test, despite the nature of the case.”
The Judge was able to find allegations of assault towards the mother and son proved, however, was unable to do so in the case of the daughter due to the fact that the allegations could not be tested on oath. He said: “I am in little doubt that had one or both of these parents been represented, the fact-finding process and probably the outcome would have been very different.”
The judge expressed his concerns over the proceedings, noting that although he had asked both parties questions rather than having them cross-examine each other, he was “hesitant about participating in this way, being reluctant to be seen to step into the arena.” He added that “judges have neither the training, tradition nor natural inclination to subject witnesses to detailed questioning.”
According to changes made in 2012 under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, to receive Legal Aid in family courts in cases of domestic violence, victims must provide evidence of the abuse as well as being means tested on income and assets.