“He had all the power”- a survivor’s experience of legal aid

Last week, Surviving Economic Abuse released a new report, Denied justice: How the legal aid means test prevents victim-survivors accessing justice. We spoke to victim-survivors of economic abuse and found that despite desperately needing legal advice and representation, the means test in England and Wales is preventing them from accessing this support by not taking account of the economic abuse they have experienced.

We are calling for victim-survivors of domestic abuse to be exempt from the legal aid means test, to ensure they can access the legal support they so desperately need as they escape abusive partners and rebuild their lives. 

Here, Claire* tells her own experience of being denied legal aid and how the legal system is abandoning victim-survivors in her position.

*not real name 

“My ex-partner was physically, emotionally and psychologically abusive and controlled all of my money. WhenI worked,he wouldtakeallthe moneyIearned, making me give it all to him. He’d give me £5 per week to buy food. He’d check the receipts from my supermarket shop and examine all the food. He’d even count how many slices of breadthe children and I hadeaten.  

I needed protection and somewhere safe to live with my children, so I went to court and got a non-molestation order and an occupation order to remove him from our home. I get Universal Credit but when I approached a solicitor about legal aid, they put my earnings and equity into a calculator and told me I wasn’t eligible. I tried about 20 different solicitors but I was always given the same answer. 

I couldn’t sell the home because it would make me and the kids homeless. I couldn’t borrow against its value either because I would need my ex-partner’s consent, which he wouldn’t give. But whether to sell the house and divide up the equity was a legal decision, which was why I need legal aid – it’s a ridiculous circle and there’s no understanding about how economic abuse works.  

When my ex-partner applied to force the sale of their home and to make arrangements for the children, I had to represent myself in court. It was absolutely terrifying. I was up against an experienced barrister who was being instructed by my ex-partner. It also meant I had to face him in court multiple times – I was so traumatized from the abuse that I vomited when I heard his voice. It was totally unequal – he had all the power. 

He took me to court for my house, forcing it to be sold. I can’t afford the mortgage and he hasn’t paid it. My credit file is ruined, if we sell, I can’t get a mortgage as the arrears need to be cleared, tens of thousands of pounds they are now. I can’t get a mortgage until a year after arrears have been paid.  

The legal aid situation needs to change, urgently. Being forced to represent myself was traumatic, and to afford the legal advice that I did pay for, my mum had to sell jewellery and take out loans which she is still paying off. Without legal aid, my ex-partner had all the power – he had the best barrister available and I couldn’t afford one at all. It’s an impossible situation, one which totally traps women like me.”