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(en) Britain, The Anarchist Federation (AFED), RESISTANCE #157 - Battle with The Legal System

Date Sun, 02 Nov 2014 10:46:28 +0200

A queer single parent, a survivor of domestic violence and an anarchist from the desolate north, shares her views on the legal system and the effect recent changes in legal aid have on survivors. ---- In April 2014 changes came into effect which meant fewer people were able to apply for legal aid support, particularly in family and custody disputes. The law now states that in family law disputes a survivor of domestic abuse must provide evidence of violence having occurred, a fraught and difficult process. Fear of legal fees can be a significant barrier for survivors of domestic violence who wish to divorce, settle financial disputes or who are going through child contact proceedings. Leaving a violent partner is difficult enough without the worry that you may lose your home, possessions or children due to high legal fees. Surprisingly, some aspects of these changes were actually welcomed by survivors as they also widened the remit for evidence which can be used to prove domestic violence and therefore claim legal aid.

Evidence of non-molestation orders, letters from support workers such as women's aid and evidence of ongoing criminal proceedings are able to be used as evidence to claim legal aid, but domestic violence is complex. Unfortunately, many still think that domestic violence is characterised by the 'battered woman'. In reality, it is a complex web of financial, sexual, emotional and physical control and abuse. Most of this cannot be 'proven' and therefore the perpetrator cannot be convicted, and without legal interventions and convictions domestic violence cannot be proven.

Many of my fellow survivor friends have all said the same thing; 'it’s almost as if you need to be hospitalised before you are believed'.

Black eyes and broken bones are a much easier signifier of abuse for people to recognise publicly, but when you are told that you are insane, fat, ugly or useless every day; when you are stopped from leaving the house or seeing your friends and family; or threatened with violence if you don't have sex, this is not visible..

This is what legal folk call 'tit for tat'. This means the perpetrator denies their actions and no-one can prove otherwise. Why would you be awarded legal aid for something that is just your word when even your closest allies are doubting you?

No-one Believed Me

Even though I had a letter from my women's aid worker, a non molestation order, criminal convictions against him and many other parts of the criteria the process of applying for the legal aid was lengthy and distressing. Having to drag out paperwork that you don't want to re-read, to explain the abuse in detail to the solicitor so that they believe you, and experiencing the flashbacks which take back years of self confidence and trauma survival is deeply traumatic. All so that you can prove to a stranger that you were actually abused.

No-one believed me then and again no-one wants to believe me now, because they don't want to give me free legal support. They would rather I paid.

In many cases it is the perpetrator who has the financial advantage, as throughout the violent relationship a key aspect is to make the victim dependent by encouraging them not to work or otherwise persuade them to hand over their financial affairs. This means that when court proceedings begin, the perpetrator may well be able to afford legal support and the survivor unable to, furthering the imbalance of power and perpetuating the means of abuse.

In my situation, the perpetrator was able to claim legal aid due to having no income. This can play two ways, it may dissuade the perpetrator from making applications to the court, or conversely it may mean they may represent themselves. This can work against the survivor as it means being questioned, interrogated and accused directly by the person who abused them. This has severe psychological effects, which is what the perpetrator wants.

I have been dragged through the courts for almost 5 years now due to criminal proceedings against the perpetrator, trying to obtain non molestation and prohibited steps orders, and now in the family court he has finally made an application for child contact which he is proceeding with. He has be trying to do this on and off for years but keeps withdrawing the application.

I imagine that agreeing child contact arrangements is difficult enough after an amicable relationship breaks down, but when domestic violence is involved the process is traumatic and the results can be catastrophic. Understandably, many survivors do not want the perpetrator to have any contact at all. I decided to deny contact based on the following reasons:

I felt he was doing it not to see our child but to gain information to stalk and harass me.
I believe due to direct threats that he has made that he will either abduct or seriously harm our child.
He is using the legal system to yet again to gain some control over my financial and emotional state.
He lost his rights to parenthood when he abused me.
A child witnessing domestic violence is in fact being abused themselves and can suffer for many years as a result.

I believe that these are all valid reasons to deny contact, yet he has a legal right to seek it whether it be direct, indirect, supervised or unsupervised. In other words I believe that through the legal system he is able to continue to abuse me. Cases are assessed on the best interest of the child which is in principle great, but in reality a system which still believes that a child having two parents is paramount to that child's rights is always going to work in a way that favours a Thatcherite view of the family. This means that contact can be given to abusers based on the fallacy of the nuclear family and puts children and survivors at risk of further abuse and even death.

Family cases are long, very long, and in turn very expensive. My current bout has been going on since January 2014 of this year and there is not even a slight end in sight (August 2014). If I were paying for this then I would owe the solicitors several thousand pounds. I don't work as a result of PTSD due to the domestic violence, but even if I wanted to work it would not benefit me as all my wages would go to legal fees. This means that I am on benefits for the foreseeable future whilst the perpetrator is able to continue working and earning money without the threat of sanctions and the debilitating poverty that comes with benefits. I am poor because of him. I cannot work if I am to keep my child safe from him. He is still in control.

But the legal aid that I receive would mean nothing without the support of organisations like Women's Aid, HALT, Behind Closed Doors and Rights of Women. It is these people who counsel me, support me to make the decision that is best for me and my child, who listen to me at midnight when I can't sleep because of panic attacks and flash-backs, that make me feel like I'm not alone, that give me a support network of other survivors, who give me safe refuge to stay and who make me believe that I made the right decision to leave and the right decision to fight for what is best for me and my child and make me believe that I am strong.

These are the people that deserve £300 an hour yet these are the ones who are facing cuts, redundancies, privatisation to the highest bidder and who will be working into old age and still be poor.

Legal aid is fantastic but it is these people who have saved my life and people in the legal profession could learn so much from them.
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