An alleged rape victim will not be forced to represent herself in family proceedings against her alleged attacker thanks to a Newcastle solicitor who has secured a change to legal aid funding rules.
Following a threatened judicial review, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has amended funding rules so that child care costs will be deducted from the sum deemed to be income for the purpose of determining legal aid eligibility for students as well as people in work.
The decision followed a campaign by Cris McCurley, partner at north-east firm Ben Hoare Bell, on behalf of a client contesting a child contact application made by her former partner who had a history of violence towards her and had allegedly raped her. The client's public funding was withdrawn after she enrolled on a university course.
McCurley told the Gazette her client passed the legal aid merits test, but failed the means test as her student loan, including a component received for child care costs, was treated as income. Had she been in work the child care costs would have been deducted from the means calculation.
The case fell out of scope of the exceptional funding scheme. McCurley said the client faced the prospect of having to represent herself in court or give up contesting her former partner's case.
'She [the client] is a young and vulnerable woman who is severely traumatised and has needed physical help to stand up in court - she has fainted and suffered panic attacks and would not have been in a position to represent herself against her former partner,' McCurley said.
McCurley contacted the LAA, which said it had no discretion.
'I had no choice but to get advice on a judicial review,' McCurley said.
Jason Coppel QC from London set 11KBW, acting pro bono, advised there was a case for a legal challenge to the funding decision, which he said showed 'clear discrimination' between students and those who are working. The Public Law Project, also acting pro bono, drafted a letter before action.
On receipt, McCurley said, the LAA agreed to make an exception and fund the case, before going further and agreeing to amend the rules.