Domestic violence victims suffer enough. GPs should not be able to charge them to access justice.
A few weeks ago, I visited a centre to help victims of domestic abuse in Wythenshawe in Greater Manchester. Over 350 women have visited Safe Spots to access help since is opened its doors in February this year.
I talked to the volunteers who help run the centre. Nearly all of them are survivors themselves, and they spoke to me about their own experiences of domestic abuse. I heard harrowing stories of physical and mental abuse. I was told about intimidation, and coercion. I learned about the controlling behavior that some women were subjected to when they were still in their teens, and often continued for many years.
One of the women I met there is a survivor of domestic abuse herself. She told me about an issue that gets raised again and again by domestic abuse victims who come to their centre for help. She explained that when a woman who has experienced domestic violence or abuse wants to apply for legal aid - because she’s fleeing an abusive relationship and seeking justice for her herself and her kids – she now needs to provide a prescribed piece of evidence to prove she has been subjected to abuse.
One of the accepted forms of evidence is a letter from a GP. What I was told next shocked me. I was told that some GPs charge a fee – in one case it was £75 – to produce that letter.
I have since discovered that doctors are free to levy an unspecified fee for providing this medical evidence, as it sits outside of the NHS contract. For a woman on a low income, who may be on benefits, or might be financially controlled and coerced by an abusive partner, the idea of a paying a fee is as offensive as it is ridiculous. Sometimes they are struggling – and not always succeeding - to feed a family and pay the bills.
It is not difficult to imagine the dilemma these women face. Should they pay a fee and get in debt? The alternative might be facing their abuser, unrepresented by a lawyer, in court.
Since I visited Safe Spots, I’ve spoken to solicitors and legal experts, who say they have examples of doctors charging up to £175 for that legal aid letter.
A survey by Rights of Women, which helps women access the legal system, found that 37 per cent of women who had experienced domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence they required to access legal aid.
Let me be clear. I know that the vast majority of GPs would baulk at the idea of charging for that letter. They are kind, compassionate and caring people who chose medicine as a profession because they want to help.
But we don’t know how many do charge because the Government doesn’t hold that information. I think they need to find out fast. If this is a loophole, close it. If this is an unintended consequence of poorly drafted legislation, change it.
No GP should charge victims of domestic abuse for a letter they need to access legal aid. It’s unfair. It’s immoral. And it has to stop. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to what campaigners have to say.
Sarah Green, Co-Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, says: "Women who are seeking a letter from their doctor confirming they have been a victim of abuse in order to be eligible for legal aid in the family courts should not have to pay for this. This fee can be a real bar to seeking something which is really needed."
The legal profession agrees that these charges should be scrapped. Jonathan Smithers, the President of the Law Society, said: ‘The harsh tests requiring people to bring evidence to satisfy the broader statutory meaning of domestic violence are not what parliament intended.’
‘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.’
I think we should listen to the campaigners and heed the legal experts. But above all else, we need to listen to women who suffer at the hands of the men who perpetrate this appalling abuse.
The woman I met at Safe Spot in Wythenshawe says she wants these fees scrapped. So do I.
If you agree, sign our petition here.