Under what’s called the ‘domestic violence rule’ women who come to the UK on a spousal visa but then face domestic violence can leave their marriage and apply for permission to stay in the UK in their own right. 

Applications under the domestic violence rule are complex and IKWRO usually hooks women up with a legal aid solicitor to help them through the process.  Sadly we may not be able to do this for much longer.

In March we wrote about government proposals which would stop these women from getting legal aid.  At that time, many women’s organisations including IKWRO contacted the Ministry of Justice to ask them to reconsider their plans.

Unfortunately they didn’t.  The proposals remain in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment Bill, which was released in parliament last Tuesday, 21 June.  You can help us to stop this bill by contacting your MP now.

Applying for leave to remain in the UK under the domestic violence rule is a complicated process.  The woman has to complete an 18 page form and provide several pieces of evidence.  She will often be financially destitute, and may not know her rights under UK law.  If English isn’t her first language, gathering the evidence , completing the form or representing herself will be particularly difficult.  Cutting her access to legal aid is the worst thing that could happen.

The bill is already in parliament but you can still help to stop it from going ahead.  Rights of Women have written a template letter which you can copy and paste into an email to send to your MP.  The action will take you two minutes.  Here’s how to do it:

1. Go to www.writetothem.com

2. Type your postcode into the box that appears and click “go”

3. You will be taken to a page which lists all of your elected representatives.  Look at the column which is headed “Select your member of parliament” and click on the name of your MP.

4. You will now be taken to a page where you can enter your name, address, and a message to your MP.  You can write your own letter or copy and paste the text below into the large white text box on the screen. Remember to sign off in your own name, and to insert the name of your organisation (if you have one) where you are prompted to.

5. When you have done all of the above, click on “preview your message” and if you are happy with it, click “send message”.

Template letter for MPs:

Dear [insert the name of your MP here],

I am writing to you to express very urgent concerns about the impact that the Government proposals for the reform of legal aid in England and Wales would have on the safety and well-being of women who are at risk of and have experienced gender-based violence and abuse. I am particularly concerned about the proposals on private family law and immigration.

As you will know, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is moving very quickly through Parliament. It had its second reading on 29 June and is soon moving to committee stage. I urge you to take action against the proposals which will have a negative impact on women and are entirely inconsistent with Government commitments on violence against women and girls.

The Government has announced that legal aid will be retained for private family law matters where domestic violence is an issue, in recognition of the need to ensure that victims of domestic violence are protected. But this is simply not the case. The majority of women who have experienced domestic violence will remain ineligible for legal aid because the evidence that they will be required to present is far too restrictive.

To ensure that all women affected by domestic violence are protected, it is essential that the evidential criteria used reflect the experiences of women and the reality of domestic violence. This must include evidence from specialist domestic violence organisations, health services and social services.  It is also essential that the proposed 12-month time limit is not applied to the evidential criteria. The time limit would mean that a woman who has had a domestic violence injunction in place could not use the injunction as evidence of violence if it expired more than 12 months ago. This simply does not reflect the reality of domestic violence and the high prevalence of post-separation violence.

Furthermore, whilst it is proposed that legal aid will be retained for applications for domestic violence orders (occupation or non-molestation orders) and forced marriage protection orders, it does not appear to be retained for those against whom a protection order is sought. We are concerned that the anticipated surge in litigants in person as a result of the proposals will result in an increase in the number of women being cross-examined by a perpetrator in detail about the physical or sexual violence she has experienced. I believe that legal aid should be available for those against whom a domestic violence injunction is sought, at least for court hearings, to ensure that women are not re-victimised in this way.

I also urge you to question the impact that the proposals to remove immigration from the scope of legal aid will have on women who are vulnerable to gender-based violence and abuse. I have particular concerns about the impact on applicants for indefinite leave to remain under the domestic violence rule, asylum support, family reunification and individuals who have been trafficked into theUnited Kingdom.

For example, I am very concerned that the Government proposes to remove legal aid for applications under paragraph 289A (the domestic violence rule) of the Immigration Rules. This rule offers a critical safety net to protect women from violence by enabling them to leave abusive relationships and regularise their status in the United Kingdom (UK). It was introduced to make sure that women who entered theUKon spousal visas and have been permitted to remain for two years before qualifying for permanent settlement are not trapped in abusive relationships because of concerns over their immigration status. The Government has asserted that these applications are generally straightforward, although it concedes that applicants may benefit from practical help and assistance. Yet the SET(DV) application form which must be completed by applicants under this rule is 18 pages long and must be accompanied by a number of different forms of evidence and a letter from the applicant. Critically, there is no alternative to legal advice in immigration cases such as this; it is a criminal offence for anyone to give immigration advice or services in the UK unless they are qualified to do so.

I urge you to raise these concerns with Government, and question how the proposals for legal aid fit with the Government’s commitments on violence against women and girls.

Yours sincerely,

[insert your name here]

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