Denied justice: How the legal aid means test prevents victim-survivors accessing justice

In a new report, Surviving Economic Abuse is 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.  

Victim-survivors of domestic abuse are among those most in need of legal advice and representation. However, many are not able to access it because of the legal aid means test. 

The means test assesses income and capital and is designed to determine whether applicants can afford to pay legal bills.  

Our report, Denied justice, shows that the means test in England and Wales is preventing victim-survivors from accessing legal aid by not taking account of the economic abuse they have experienced. The means test often deems their income or capital too high for support from legal aid, even though the abuser’s behaviour means they cannot access their income or assets.

Of the women we spoke to, a significant number were living in poverty and struggling to afford essentials, like food for their children, yet were refused legal aid. 

“Access to justice should be everybody’s right… The failure to have a fair means test undermines that basic right.” – Jenny Beck QC (Hon), Solicitor and Director, Beck Fitzgerald

As a result of the means test, many victim-survivors of domestic abuse find themselves without any funds to pay for legal advice or representation.  

Many of the women we spoke to resorted to costly loans or self-representation through complex legal proceedings. More victim-survivors who responded to our survey had to self-represent in legal proceedings than were able to access legal aid.  

As the report shows, without legal aid victim-survivors are: 

  • unable to leave abusers because they cannot afford the legal costs of separation 
  • unable to rebuild their lives separate from the abuser because of legal costs  
  • exposed to further economic abuse by abusers through the court system.  
“Far too many survivors find themselves struggling to navigate a legally complex and emotional process alone because of the financial barriers to obtaining legal representation… This report is important in highlighting the impact of the current rules on victims and survivors of domestic abuse, and I am pleased to support its call for urgent reform to the legal aid system.” – Nicole Jacobs, Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales
Read the report