Gender Gaps in Access to Civil Legal Justice
Date Posted: Thursday 13th July 2023
A survey of support services in England and Wales
Our latest report includes new survey data that reveals alarming barriers faced by women in accessing civil legal justice and highlights the pressing needs and adverse impact faced by women as a result of reduced funding for the civil justice system.
Over the past decade, the UK justice system has experienced significant funding cuts since the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO Act) in 2012. The Ministry of Justice budget in 2019/20 was 25% lower than in 2010/11, leading to a fragile civil legal justice system even before the pandemic hit. Concerns have been raised about the disproportionate impact on women compared to men, particularly for women on low incomes, Black and minority ethnic women, new migrant women, and women acting as carers. However, the full extent of these gendered and intersectional impacts has not been fully explored.
This report sets out some of the impacts on women of changes following the LASPO Act 2012, as well as other changes to the civil legal justice system. As well as exploring the consequences of some of these changes, the report explores the reasons why (and where) women seek help or advice on civil legal matters. The report also explores possible solutions to helping women – from all backgrounds – to access civil legal justice.
Key findings include:
- 85% of respondents said vulnerable women are unable to access civil legal aid and 77% said a major consequence of the legal aid changes is ‘women reaching crisis point or problems escalating’ before they receive any legal help or advice.
- The most widespread employment law issue women seek help with is pregnancy/maternity discrimination.
- 48% of respondents reported domestic violence as a key issue.
- Stakeholders highlighted the “double whammy” disproportionately impacting women: the reduced scope what is covered by legal aid and the reduced amount of legal aid available.
Civil legal law issues women seek help for:
- Employment Law: Discrimination, including maternity/pregnancy discrimination, is a prevalent issue. 39% reported maternity/pregnancy discrimination. 45% of respondents reported “other discrimination,” which includes age discrimination and less favourable treatment as part-time workers.
- Housing Law: No-fault evictions and homelessness among women have increased. Rent arrears, especially for vulnerable women, lack proper legal aid coverage.
- Social Security Law: Over 50% of respondents highlighted women seeking advice on social security/benefits. 28% mentioned “debts with DWP” as a common issue.
- Private Family Law: 48% of respondents reported domestic violence as a key issue. Legal aid changes since 2012 have significantly impacted family and maternity-related cases.
- Immigration and Asylum-Seeking Law: 36% of respondents cited “welfare benefits/no recourse to public funds” as the primary reason migrant women sought legal help. 30% mentioned “domestic violence or trafficking.”
The report sets out the following recommendations to address the identified challenges and promote a more equitable and accessible civil legal system:
- More research into impact of LASPO changes on women’s employment outcomes
- Improving access to legal aid for employment discrimination: The scope for employment law issues covered by legal aid should be widened, and
thresholds for eligibility and time limits to seek advice should be increased.
- Intervene with support sooner to avoid litigation: There is a strong case for funding specialist advice for employment and discriminationrelated
cases, so as to avoid litigation, and to keep cases out of tribunals. This would not only help to achieve better outcomes – such as helping women to keep their jobs – but
would also maintain good working relationships with employers.
- Better overall legal training for solicitors themselves – and embedding legal expertise in primary-contact services (e.g. GP services, housing, homelessness, foodbanks) would mean improved access to civil legal justice.
- Improve general public legal education to ensure people can access the support they are entitled to
- Improve referrals to address issues sooner: 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 project was funded by the Community Justice Fund.