Rape victim legal aid bid rejected over support for 'just one type of crime'

Legal aid for rape victims has been rejected
Legal aid for rape victims has been rejected -Credit:Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images

The Government has batted back a bid to ensure rape victims can access free legal advice and representation. In seeing off the measures, the Conservatives warned against creating “a hierarchy of support”.

While acknowledging the vulnerability of those affected, Tory frontbencher Earl Howe cautioned against introducing the provision “for just one type of crime” and said there were “far-reaching considerations” to be taken into account. He also highlighted steps being taken to ease the burden on victims, such as limiting requests for information.

The deputy leader of the Lords was speaking as the Victims and Prisoners Bill continued its passage through the upper chamber. A move to establish a scheme where victims of rape could get free legal advice and representation in every police force area in England and Wales was narrowly rejected by 177 votes to 168, majority nine.

Proposing the measure, Labour frontbencher Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede said: “A lack of resource should not and cannot be an acceptable reason for not getting legal advice and it should not depend on a postcode lottery either.”

Lord Howe, who is deputy leader of the Lords, said: “I agree that it is extremely important that victims are aware of their rights and confident in those rights, particularly when preparing for trial and when requests for their personal information are made. While it would be novel to provide access to free legal advice and representation for just one type of crime we absolutely recognise that if there is one category of people who are especially vulnerable it is victims of rape and sexual offences.

“We also recognise that victims of these crimes are more likely to receive requests for sensitive, personal information as part of an investigation and that there are calls for independent legal advice to help victims with this situation as well. We do recognise this.

“And that is why the Bill tackles the problem in a different way. It does that by introducing measures that are designed to minimise requests for information. Through the Bill we are placing a new statutory duty on the police to only request third party material relating to victims when necessary, proportionate and relevant to a reasonable line of inquiry.”

But he added: “We don’t want to create a hierarchy of support by granting Government-funded legal advice to victims of just one type of crime.”

Saying there were “complex and sensitive considerations”, Lord Howe said: “In particular we have to be mindful of the role of a victim as a witness in proceedings and avoid anything that might have an unintended impact on the defendant’s right to a fair trial. This was a concern that emerged very explicitly from the pilot scheme that was run in the north of England.”

He went on: “These are all far-reaching considerations which I suggest require expert input before any statutory measures are considered.”

A move to suspend parental responsibility from parents who have been convicted of child sexual abuse against a member of their own family also failed. However, peers did inflict two defeats against the Government in backing a demand for proper training over the statutory victims’ code and a duty on designated public bodies to collaborate with the Victims’ Commissioner.