News In Focus
Domestic Abuse Bill supported with reservation
The Domestic Abuse Bill before the Scottish Parliament should get the go-ahead but without the provision removing means testing for civil legal aid, according to the Justice Committee.
In its stage 1 report published today, the committee supports the general principles of the bill, introduced by Labour member Rhoda Grant MSP. However it believes that the removal of means testing for legal aid to pursue to pursue a protective order in a domestic abuse case would create an inequality between the pursuer and the defender.
It also questioned whether the removal of the means test represented the best use of resources given the current restrictions on public spending.
Ms Grant's bill aims to increase access to justice for victims of domestic abuse. It would remove the "course of conduct" requirement before a civil non-harassment order can be granted, and enable police and prosecutors to provide a more robust response to breached civil non-harassment orders by dealing with a breach as a criminal and not a civil offence.
The committee also recommends including a statutory definition of "domestic abuse" in the bill. However, it believes the definition should be restricted to generally accepted categories of partners and not extended to cover other family relationships.
Committee convener Bill Aitken MSP said: “The Justice Committee recognises the importance of Rhoda Grant’s bill and we have agreed to support the general principles of the bill at stage 1. However, we cannot support the removal of means testing for legal aid applicants wanting domestic abuse protective orders as this would create an inequality between the pursuer and the defender. We would want to remove this provision if the bill progresses to stage 2.”
Click here to view the committee's report.
The Law Society of Scotland has welcomed the fact that the report reflects evidence it gave to the Justice Committee. Lesley Dowdalls, a member of the Society’s Family Law Committee said: “The approach of the Legal Aid Board, in my experience has always been to attempt to provide equality of arms. We could not have a situation in which defenders were not given the same rights as pursuers to access legal representation”.
The Society had also asked for the definition of “domestic abuse” to be reconsidered, to guarantee a clear understanding of which domestic relationships the proposed legislation will apply to; and favoured a breach of interdict being classed as a criminal offence, recommending that a criminal standard of proof and corroboration should apply.
Ms Dowdalls said: “We are pleased so many of the Society’s recommendations have been incorporated into the stage 1 report. The main premise of the bill to increase access to justice is extremely important but it is equally important to ensure this access is equal for all. It is crucial to ensure the revised legislation, which will result if this bill is successful, will make the process for victims seeking help and protection easier and more accessible.”