Last nights debate on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in the Commons made for compelling watching. The tireless work of WI campaigners, who have been lobbying on this issue for over a year, came down to this moment. Last month the legal aid campaign secured a major success when the House of Lords voted through vital amendments to the Bill that would protect access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence. However as I watched the debates, I was all too aware that the good work done in the Lords could quickly become undone in the Commons.
In the end what we saw was a considerable compromise from the government; that will ensure that many more victims of domestic violence have access to legal aid. Our three main campaign ‘asks’; the inclusion of the cross-government definition in the Bill, the evidence gateways to be widened so women can use evidence from a wider range of professionals (for example a doctor, or a support worker) to access legal aid, and the removal of the twelve month time frame that applies to the evidence, were all addressed by government and significant changes were made.
The government committed to widening the evidence gateways to include a police caution, admission to a refuge, and evidence from a doctor or social services. They also extended the time frame that applies to the evidence gateways to two years. Finally they tabled their own amendment to include the cross-government definition of domestic violence in the Bill; something the WI has been asking for since the campaign first began.
These concessions will make a real difference; many more victims of domestic violence will be able to access legal aid as a result of these changes. Many thanks to all those members who ‘Paired up with a Peer’ and wrote to MPs, your tireless lobbying no doubt made a difference. Once again the WI has shown politicians that we are a force to be reckoned with!