Published: 23rd September 2016
Characters from BBC Radio 4 soap opera 'The Archers' have put legal aid eligibility under the spotlight, with the Law Society highlighting that the rules for determining who receives legal aid in the family courts are unfair.
'The Archers' – the world's longest-running radio soap opera – has come under fire from legal professionals for its depiction of legal aid as well as for misrepresenting the criminal justice system and has been accused of favouring the role of barristers over the role played by solicitors in the legal system.
In the show, couple Helen and Rob Titchener are preparing to face each other in a courtroom battle over the custody of their two children, Henry and Jack, following Helen's recent acquittal of attempted murder (of her husband) after years of physical and emotional abuse.
However, the Law Society say that a real-life Helen would not be eligible for legal aid and would have to face her husband without legal representation. Head of Justice at the Law Society, Richard Miller said: 'Current legal aid rules mean that abusive Rob could qualify for legal aid to have a solicitor represent him, but Helen would not.'
'In Ambridge [the fictional setting of the programme], Rob will clearly be able to do that. He was stabbed by Helen. But the emotional abuse Rob has perpetrated will not give rise to any documentary evidence. A real-life Helen would be left to face her abuser without a solicitor to represent her', he continued.
A spokesperson from Radio 4 said: 'We have gone to great lengths to research and develop this storyline with legal guidance and help from charities, but as our listeners know, The Archers is a fictional 15-minute programme so on occasion there's some element of dramatic licence involved.'
Following the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), legal aid was removed from the majority of family law cases with the exception of domestic violence related cases, however only if documentary evidence of abuse can be produced.
In a recent survey by the charity Rights of Women, statistics showed that as many as 40% of domestic violence victims still do not have the required forms of evidence to access legal aid, even after provisions were made to the regulations in April 2014. Furthermore, another survey by leading market research company Ipsos MORI found that two thirds of domestic violence victims are unaware that they can still claim legal aid, putting these victims at a greater risk of long term harm.
'Without legal aid, women are unable to access family law remedies, which are vital in order to help them escape from violent relationships and protect their children. They are being forced to face their perpetrators in court without legal representation', said Richard Miller.
He added: 'Legal aid is a lifeline for victims of abuse. We are currently in constructive discussions with the Ministry of Justice to amend the rules. We hope that the case of Rob and Helen will help to drive home just why current rules are problematic and that they must change.'
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