Ministry denies U-turn as Gallardón waives court fees for violence victims

Justice chief says abused women will be exempt from both filing and lawyer charges

Victims of domestic violence, child abuse, terrorism and prostitution rings will be among those who will be exempted from paying new court filing fees, which were reintroduced by Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón earlier this month.

What's more, they will have the right to completely free legal assistance from next year, regardless of their level of income. The measure will also cover mentally disabled people who have suffered violent or sexual abuse. Provided the case is connected to their status as a victim, they will neither have to pay solicitors' or advocates' fees.

Gallardón's announcement in Congress of the move, which will be included in the Free Justice Law to be presented in December, was not unlike a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. Right up until the previous day the Popular Party minister had rejected all appeals from a number of groups and associations to exempt mistreated women from having to pay court filing fees in civil procedures such as divorce.

But on Wednesday, while responding to an umpteenth reproach from opposition Socialist Party deputy Carmen Montón over the issue, he revealed the surprising about-face.

We said from the beginning that the fees and the free justice laws were related"

Reminding Montón that even if mistreated women didn't have to pay the filing fees, they would still have to face far more expensive solicitors' and advocates' charges, Gallardón told her that her request did not go far enough.

He then went on to announce that a new legal reform would exempt victims of domestic violence, along with the other aforementioned groups, from all legal costs. As such they would benefit from free legal services, currently only available to those on low incomes.

Neither Gallardón nor his ministry had mentioned the new measure when the filing fees legislation went into effect last week and the controversy erupted.

He presented the reform as his own initiative, while the ministry denied that it was a rectification of anything. "We said from the beginning that the fees and the free justice laws were related," Justice Ministry sources argued.

In any case, the provision of free legal assistance for victims of abuse and terrorism, as well as mentally disabled people who suffer violent treatment, was something the ministry had to incorporate in order to comply with a recent European directive. While it was only obliged to do so in criminal cases, it has decided to extend the provision to all procedures.

The new Fees Law introduces a system of charges for individuals filing legal procedures - ranging from 100 to 1,200 euros. A Socialist government had abolished a similar system in 1986 to facilitate equal access to the law courts. In the intervening period, only companies have been obliged to pay court filing fees.

The law will begin to be applied from the end of this month or the beginning of January. Although it came into force on November 21, the Justice Ministry has ordered it to be suspended until the Treasury has time to come up with the regulations to manage the payment of the fees.

The Free Justice Law, meanwhile, will take three or four months to come into force according to the ministry, meaning there will be a period in which the future exempted groups will have to stump up payments.

The Socialist Party on Wednesday urged the government to accelerate the process of passing the exemption, while the United Left grouping branded the announcement as a "band aid."


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