Gender Gaps in Access to Civil Legal Justice: New Report Reveals Alarming Disadvantages Faced by Women
Date Posted: Thursday 13th July 2023
The Women’s Budget Group, using funding from the Community Justice Fund, has today released a report with new survey data that sheds a light on gender disparities in accessing civil legal justice and the pressing needs, barriers, and adverse impact faced by women as a result of reduced funding for the civil justice system.
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.
Commenting on the findings, Dr Sara Reis, Head of Policy and Research and Deputy Director of the Women’s Budget Group 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.”
Clare Carter, Chief Executive of the Access to Justice Foundation, the host organisation for the Community Justice Fund commented:
“Legal interventions hold the potential to address issues uniquely important to women, and advice services can play a fundamental role in improving women’s lives.”
“Women experiencing employment disputes are more vulnerable to discrimination and less favourable treatment, and migrant women have specific needs relating to accessing welfare benefits and their experiences of trafficking and domestic violence.”
The report highlights the distinctive profile of legal needs among women, which predominantly fall within the areas of law most affected by a lack of public funding, particularly specialist social welfare law.
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.”
As well as confirming the prevalence of specific challenges faced by women, such as domestic violence, the report highlighted concerning new trends such as an increase in women facing homelessness through no-fault eviction proceedings.
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’ well-being. 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.
- More research into impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) changes on women’s employment outcomes:
There is a strong case for undertaking more research on the impact of changes in civil legal law (since 2012) on employment outcomes for women.
- 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:
Increase funding for specialist advice for employment and discrimination-related cases, so as to avoid litigation, and to keep cases out of tribunals.
- Better legal training:
Better 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, it is important to share and disseminate public legal education at a local and community level.
- 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 would make a significant difference particularly for victims/survivors of domestic abuse.
The publication of the Gender Gaps in Access to Civil Legal Justice report serves as a call to action. It is imperative that policymakers, stakeholders, and society as a whole prioritize and address the systemic barriers faced by women within the civil justice system.
By investing in advice services and ensuring they have the necessary resources to support women, we can empower them to feed their children, remain in the workforce, and protect themselves and their families from abuse.
For more information or further comment, contact
Notes to Editors:
About the research
- The survey, conducted between November 2022 and January 2023, involved 115 organisations and services across England and Wales. We also convened a roundtable of stakeholders with an interest in access issues to civil legal law to sense-check our interim survey findings and identify policy priorities.
About the Women’s Budget Group
The UK Women’s Budget Group (WBG) is the UK’s leading gender equality think tank, providing evidence and analysis on women’s economic position and proposing policy alternatives for a gender-equal economy. We act as a link between academia, the women’s voluntary sector and progressive economic think tanks.
About the Access to Justice Foundation
- The Access to Justice Foundation is committed to promoting access to justice for the most vulnerable individuals and communities in the UK. As a charity, we work with a network of supporters to fund free legal advice organisations and projects across England and Wales, enabling those in need to seek legal help and address their legal problems.
- We were established in 2008 by the legal profession pursuant to section 194 of the Legal Services Act 2007. The Act introduced Pro Bono Costs Orders, which are awarded to the Access to Justice Foundation. Trustees are drawn from its member organisations as well as independently appointed by the Board.
- We raise additional funds from the donation of residual client balances in law firm accounts, and through local Legal Walks, and other fundraising events, across the country. You can find out more about the “Be Part of the Picture” campaign here.
- Enquiries about the Foundation may be directed to email@example.com or telephone Martha de la Roche on 020 4522 8404.
About the Community Justice Fund
- The Community Justice Fund is a joint initiative focused on supporting the provision of specialist social welfare legal advice across the UK.
- The Community Justice Fund was originally set up in response to the Covid 19 pandemic, as a way to bring together funders to support the sector in managing the crisis. Since then, there have been three waves of funding the most recent being in December 2022 to support organisations to mitigate the impacts of the Cost of Living Crisis.
- In March 2023, the Community Justice Fund publishes its third annual Funding Gap Report on the financial health of the free legal advice sector in order to give a broad indication of the issues faced by advice services at the frontline. The report can be found here.