A mum-of-two has told how she was forced to choose between feeding her children and keeping them safe from their abusive father, after being made to pay for a GP letter to access legal aid.

Lucy*, in her 30s, was coercively controlled, raped and physically, mentally and economically abused by her ex-partner of nearly a decade. She fled the relationship with just her son and daughter, a ‘clapped out’ car, a small amount of money and the clothes on her back.

Months later he demanded to see the children and threatened to kidnap them, resulting in a battle over custody which would go on for years. At first Lucy had access to legal aid, but she lost the funding due to budget cuts in 2012.

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To apply for more aid, she needed a GP letter to provide evidence of her ex-partner’s abuse. The practice charged her £15 per letter, which she told Metro.co.uk she struggled to pay.

Lucy said: ‘It was £15, but my ex-partner kept breaching court orders and I needed one for every fresh application. It was four letters in my case.

‘£60 is a massive amount of money for me. I remember having absolutely nothing when I needed to pay for a letter, and I was sat outside the GP’s crying. I was thinking, do I feed my kids this week? Or do I pay for a letter to keep them safe?

‘That was the choice I had to make. If you don’t feed them, you lose them for not looking after them, but if you don’t keep them safe, you lose them too. I don’t think a lot of GP surgeries realise the economic side of abuse. When I left I had nothing and a lot of these women have nothing too.’

Lucy’s ex-partner used economic abuse to force her to do as he wanted, and it wasn’t until a family member died that she was able to buy herself a rundown car with the small amount of money they’d left her.

She was so scared he’d take the car away from her she would walk around with the keys in her shoes. Even years later, she says she can feel the pain in her feet from the metal pinching into her soles.

Lucy had tried to flee the relationship previously, but her ex-partner discovered her plans and held her hostage in their home until she agreed to stay. Several months later he smashed a device over her toddler’s head and she left him for good.  

Throughout their time together she didn’t realise she was experiencing domestic abuse, as her ex-partner didn’t physically punch her. She said: ‘That was always his benchmark I think.

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‘I didn’t get physically punched, I would get slammed into things. He would tell me that wasn’t abuse, that abused women get “battered”, and I should think myself lucky.’

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GP letters serve as medical proof of abuse in court, whether that be evidence of physical injuries, or medical issues which support the victim’s account.  The letters are classed as non-NHS private work, and so surgeries can choose to charge for them, despite the British Medical Association (BMA) advising against it.

During her relationship Lucy was treated for depression, and has since also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), agoraphobia and anxiety. After losing her legal aid, she suffered a breakdown and credits her GP for saving her life.

I didn’t get physically punched, I would get slammed into things. He would tell me that wasn’t abuse, that abused women get “battered”, and I should think myself lucky

She said: ‘I was seeing him regularly at this point for various mental health reasons. He noticed I’d not seen him for a couple of months and knocked on my door while calling in on another patient on my road.

‘That knock on the door saved my life because I’d had a full break-down. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t dress, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t go out the house. I was just a shell that was whittling away.’

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Lucy believes some GP practices don’t know how ‘absolutely critical’ they are in helping victims of domestic abuse. She wants to raise awareness of the impact they can have, adding that their help is often the ‘difference between life and death’.

An amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill has now been submitted to try and stop fees being imposed on victim’s needing medical evidence letters for good.

Until then, a spokesperson for BMA said they recommend that surgeries do not charge victims for their letters, although they noted that it is ultimately down to the practice’s discretion.

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They added: ‘The BMA believes that there is no need for medical involvement in the process for gaining access to legal aid for domestic abuse victims.

‘We feel that such requests can compromise the relationship between doctor and patient, and that legal aid agencies should take the word of victims without needing to consult a GP – who themselves may not be best placed to confirm whether domestic abuse has occurred.’

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Lucy Hadley, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Women’s Aid, said the charity had heard stories of women being charged hundreds of pounds for letters, noting that this can create ‘major barriers’ between women and the support they need.

She said: ‘Survivors often have to provide “evidence” of abuse in order to access support – including when applying for legal aid, the child maintenance system and exemptions from Jobseekers Allowance work conditions. 

‘These requirements can create major barriers to accessing support, as many survivors will have never reported the abuse they’ve experienced to their GP, the police or any other statutory agency. 

‘It is good to hear that guidance now discourages doctors from charging survivors for evidence, and we hope this will be publicly available.  However, Women’s Aid remains clear that no survivor should ever be charged for obtaining evidence of domestic abuse from a GP or other medical professional.’

*Names have been changed.

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