Employment law is one of the main areas where women face systemic barriers to seeking civil legal help and legal aid needs to be expanded as a result, a feminist think tank has urged.
The report from the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) highlighted “concerning new trends”, such as an increase in women facing homelessness through no-fault eviction proceedings.
The WBG, with funding from the Community Justice Fund, polled 115 organisations across England and Wales, including advice agencies, law firms, barristers and trades unions, and held a stakeholder roundtable, for the report Gender gaps in access to civil legal justice.
A large majority (85%) said the LASPO legal aid cuts had left vulnerable women unable to access legal aid, while in 77% of cases, problems were “reaching crisis point” or “escalating”.
Nearly two-thirds of organisations said women were unable to get help with tribunals and a similar proportion that they were not coming forward with legal problems or claims.
Researchers said in the introduction to the report: “Even before the introduction of the LASPO Act 2012, the majority of those using civil legal aid were women.
“And legal aid has always been a critical lifeline for vulnerable women, like survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, and asylum-seeking women.
“But the combination of cuts to legal aid, as well as cuts to local authority funding has resulted in the closure of half of law centres or agencies offering free legal advice, resulting in ‘advice deserts’ across the country.”
Although legal aid is available for discrimination cases, law firms, advice agencies and other organisations told researchers that the threshold for eligibility was “very low” and access was “extremely difficult”.
The most common employment law issues women faced were ‘other’ discrimination (45%) – which could be related to age, part-time working or flexible working – followed by maternity/pregnancy discrimination (38%).
The WBG called for more research into impact of the LASPO changes on women’s employment outcomes, and said the scope for employment law issues covered by legal aid should be widened, with thresholds for eligibility and time limits to seek advice also increased.
The research highlighted the most common issues for women in housing, social security, private family, and immigration and asylum law, noting how there has been “an increase in women facing no-fault eviction proceedings and homelessness”.
More broadly, organisations put ineligibility top of the table of barriers preventing women from accessing civil legal aid, followed closely by inaccessibility in geographical terms, a lack of awareness and signposting, and a lack of early advice in key areas such as housing, family law, debt, employment and immigration.
The report concluded: “The current resourcing and capacity constraints faced by frontline advice providers mean that thousands of women will go without the critical advice needed to secure their and their families’ wellbeing.
“It is clear that increased and continued investment is essential to ensure that advice services are equipped to meet the additional needs of women in the civil justice system.”
Among other recommendations were increased funding for specialist advice for employment and discrimination-related cases, so as to avoid litigation; embedding legal expertise in primary-contact services – such as GP services and foodbanks – to improve access to civil legal justice; and improving general public legal education.
The WBG also said there needed to be more cross-sector collaboration to build on each other’s expertise and knowledge and to facilitate referrals.
“Many services are keen to link up with law centres. This would make a significant difference particularly for victims/survivors of domestic abuse.”
Dr Sara Reis, head of policy and research and deputy director of the WBG, said: “The report reveals a troubling reality: the legal aid changes introduced in 2012 have cut a critical lifeline for vulnerable women including survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and asylum-seeking women, leaving them without essential legal support in the face of discrimination, violence, and housing insecurity.
“Policymakers should widen the eligibility criteria for legal aid, particularly for employment discrimination, and provide training and education for professionals to resolve the issues faced by women sooner and close the gender civil justice gap.”