People who have suffered domestic violence and want to take their case to court can be charged more than £100 to get their GP to support their legal aid application - and could even pay up to £300 - a MoneySavingExpert.com investigation reveals.
Specialist family law solicitors from across the country have told us many now face the charges after changes to the qualifying criteria for legal aid three years ago.
Since 2013 applicants for legal aid have had to provide some form of evidence they or their children have experienced domestic violence or abuse, and many go to their GP for help. Yet GPs aren't paid for this by the NHS, and so can choose to charge patients.
Since the changes came into effect there have been 25,000 applications for legal aid backed by evidence of domestic abuse, though it's not known how many of these were supported by GPs or whether they charged.
Our investigation comes after a recent report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute found some GPs are charging people in debt crisis up to £150 for mental health paperwork.
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How much are GPs charging to support legal aid applications?
There are no official figures on what fees GPs charge to support domestic legal aid applications for people who have experienced domestic violence. It's up to each practice to set its own rates - and many GPs charge nothing at all.
But we conducted interviews with 10 family law solicitors from across the country who have experience helping with legal aid applications ahead of civil cases, and all 10 told us they'd seen people who have suffered domestic violence forced to pay for a GP to support their application.
Five of the ten solicitors had seen fees of £100 or more charged. They told us the typical fee was around £50, with £300 the highest reported.
The fee is essentially charged to cover the extra work GPs have to do to support applications. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) provides a template letter that GPs can use to support legal aid applications, which can take just a few minutes to complete. However, in certain instances GPs will be required to spend more time on an application (for example, reviewing clinical records).
During the course of our investigation we spoke to family law solicitors based in London, Cardiff, Manchester, Nottingham, Derby, Milton Keynes, Pontypridd, Exeter and Truro.
Here's what some of the solicitors we spoke to told us:
- Jane Sharratt, from the Smith Partnership in Derby, said: "We're aware of hundreds of cases locally and we've had one client who has been charged a fee of £300. Doctors are seeing this as a free-for-all for making astronomical charges - it’s scandalous."
- Laura Hitchen, from WTB Solicitors in Manchester, told us: "Some doctors provide the letter without charging a fee - however, the average charge appears to be between £50 and £70. The most I have seen requested is £120."
- Chris Barber, from Robertsons Solicitors in Cardiff, said: "The standard amount charged by doctors seems to be £50 for one of these letters. It’s obviously a problem for the people that are applying for legal aid as around 80% of our [legal aid] clients are on benefits and the remaining 20% are on low incomes. I’d say that around half of the doctors we know of are charging for this."
- Alison Leivesley, from TV Edwards Solicitors in Tower Hamlets, east London, said: "The highest I have seen is £100. We had a case where the client was charged £80 for a letter but it didn’t include the necessary information. When the client went back to ask for the letter to be amended she was asked to pay another £80."
- Laurie Taylor, from Glamorgan Law in Pontypridd, said: "I have had cases where fees have been charged up to £150. This is extortionate. [One such case was] where the mother had suffered violence at the hands of her ex-partner, but had not reported it to the police and had not been into refuge."
'I was shocked when I was told to pay so much'
These doctors' fees are often a nasty surprise for those on low incomes that are looking to start family law proceedings. Applicants for civil legal aid are means-tested and the limit for disposable income is £733/month.
Some who've suffered domestic violence and are struggling financially are faced with the prospect of dropping their case as they can't afford to pursue it. Others who have paid the fee have found they've been rejected for legal aid because their doctor hasn't provided all the required information.
One domestic violence survivor from the Midlands, who asked not to be named, told us: "I paid £35 to my doctor for the form so that I could get legal aid, but the paperwork wasn't filled out properly and I was told that it wasn't enough to progress my case. I then moved address and got a new doctor who said I had to pay £175 for the form to be filled in.
"I was shocked when I was told to pay so much. I'm unemployed and have very little money so I was worried I might have to drop my case. It was only when my daughter went to the ATM to draw out the money for me that I was able to pay the doctor and now my case is back on."
Naomi, a nurse from Manchester, added: "My case doesn’t really involve much physical abuse as it’s more emotional and mental abuse but I’ve had the police at my door for a domestic call out.
“I’m going through a divorce now and I printed off the template letter for the doctor to use for my legal aid application, but he just completely disregarded it when I gave it to him. I left the doctors feeling quite deflated and stressed.
“My solicitor encouraged me to not give up, so I went back and he charged me £20 to do it, but he didn’t do it correctly and it was rejected.
"It was only when, following advice from my solicitor, I said I wanted a refund for the £20 and to complain to the practice manager that I was taken seriously. I went home and within an hour I got a call to say my letter was done. The whole thing has been very stressful."
What are the rules around these charges?
It's important to note that doctors are quite within their rights to charge patients for help with legal aid applications - this work is outside the NHS contract, meaning GPs receive no Government funding for it.
Guidelines issued by the British Medical Association (BMA) state that doctors should explain the reasons for the fee and agree the amount in advance, but the BMA doesn't suggest a typical fee doctors should charge.
Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chair of the BMA's GP Committee and a GP in Leeds, told us: "Practices are independent businesses and have to cover their costs in order to pay their staff. They receive a large number of requests for letters and reports for which the NHS provides no resource at all to cover the extra workload.
"In order to maintain their services to patients as a whole, practices can charge a reasonable fee to cover the cost of the work done, which will often require time spent reviewing the clinical record in order to produce a letter, opinion or report. It is rarely as simple as signing a template letter."
Many GPs don't charge a fee for signing the legal aid form - and that means they aren't paid for doing it at all.
The Legal Aid Agency told us that while it "did not believe that GPs need to charge for the evidence requested", it is "not able to compel an organisation to provide evidence free of charge".
How to avoid paying the charges
The good news is that there are a number of ways in which you can avoid paying for evidence to help you access legal aid.
- Get someone else to provide supporting evidence. It's important to note a letter from a health professional is just one of numerous types of evidence that can be accepted in an application for legal aid. You can also ask for evidence from:
- the courts
- the police
- a multi-agency risk assessment conference (MARAC)
- social services
- a refuge manager
- a domestic violence support service
- your bank, (eg, credit card accounts, loan documents and statements)
- your employer, or education or training provider
- the provider of any benefits you’ve received
- Been in a refuge? You don't have to pay. You shouldn't be paying anything for a legal aid application if you’ve been in a refuge for more than 24 hours over the past year, or if you’ve been denied access to a refuge because it’s full.
If this applies to you, the refuge manager should be able to provide a letter supporting your application, which can be submitted to the Legal Aid Agency via your solicitor.
- If you do go to your GP, ask the doctor not the receptionist. One family law solicitor we spoke to suggests you avoid being too specific when the GP surgery receptionist asks what your visit's for.
Instead, wait until you see the GP to explain what you're after, and if you'll find it difficult to pay, explain why and appeal to them directly. They might decide to waive the charge. Receptionists have less leeway, and if they know in advance what your appointment's for and that it falls outside the NHS contract you're probably more likely to be automatically charged.
If you do go to your GP, make sure you're armed with the MoJ's template evidence letter, or else you may find that your application is rejected on a technicality. It's also worth bearing in mind that a GP letter can only be accepted as evidence for domestic violence that took place in the past five years.
What's being done to stop legal aid applicants having to pay?
Pressure is building on the Government to take action, with both doctors and politicians calling for a rethink.
The BMA has demanded the Government provide NHS funding support evidence-gathering for legal aid applications so that GPs no longer need to charge for it.
Meanwhile, Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson MP has launched a petition, which has been signed by almost 4,000 people so far, calling for the fees to be scrapped.
Watson told MoneySavingExpert.com: "I learned about the GP fee when I visited a centre for victims of domestic abuse in Wythenshawe. I couldn't believe it. People suffering domestic abuse are already incredibly vulnerable. We should be taking action to help them, not demanding payment for a letter they need to access justice.
"Nearly half of women take no action as a result of not being able to apply for legal aid. That's appalling. Help for victims of domestic violence should never come at a price."
A Legal Aid Agency spokesperson said: "We have been working with domestic violence support groups to improve our understanding of the issues victims face when gathering evidence to support a legal aid application. We will carefully consider the findings of this work."
If you've tried to apply for legal aid as a survivor of domestic violence and been asked to pay for supporting evidence by your GP, let us know if you'd like to share your story - please email firstname.lastname@example.org.