It was revealed by the National Audit Office in December last, of the 90% increase in litigants in person in cases of family law proceedings involving children, cases in which neither parent had legal representation. I see this first hand at my local family court, it is both frustrating and upsetting to see people fail in their interpretation of the law, the application of the same and the methods by which to enforce it; not to mention the administrative tasks which thus far only solicitors, practised and trained to deal with, have had to address.
We are increasingly aware of the legal aid cuts and the impact of the lack of funding and the resultant loss of access to justice for those who simply cannot afford it. The fundamental aim of my practice therefore as the Women's Lawyer to break down barriers, provide an affordable service in which litigants in persons are supported and navigated through the maze that is our legal system in a method which will create transparency and allow for people to achieve a fair and just outcome wherever possible. Given the above the need, for pro bono advice is crucial, the hourly costs of lawyers are a hurdle the majority of people cannot overcome - should this mean the right to seek justice is only within the reach of those who can afford it? Surely not.
I was called to the Bar in 1998, I began lecturing family law in 1999 and continued to do so until September last at which point I turned my focus to building my legal consultancy practice and expansion in the form of legal education and awareness, it is crucially important to me the shrouds of mystery which surround the legal system are broken down; in light of said cuts it is my opinion the law need be far more accessible, clearer in language and style, ultimately more user friendly. It can no longer be the preserve of the lawyers and the judiciary alike, we must be seen to be more doing more to help those who need it the most. It is abhorrent that those who cannot afford lawyers will lose the right to their homes, jobs, even children through what can only be described as lack of knowledge and skill and therefore power on their part.
The actual practice of family law is rather different to that which I lectured upon, the laws are within themselves cohesive and structured such that some degree of appreciation and understanding is possible by a layman, but the procedural tasks be it the form filling, the correct (and I ought to add every increasing) court fees no to mention court protocol and deadlines are potentially a nightmare, forms are returned from the family courts on minor technicalities - the court staff are overworked, the resources are scarce and the result is yet again a further barrier to justice - all bewildering to someone already in the throes of upheaval and upset. Language is another issue, the language of the law is one thing but for those whom are not proficient with English it is another. I advise several people for whom English is not their first language, this is yet another barrier plus of course there is the cultural and historical aspects which surround the eccentricities of the English Legal System and exacerbate fear and misunderstanding on the part of the user.
My personal goal, in light of all that is said above, is to provide a free legal surgery within a domain which I believe will help the regular person, hence my decision to hold said clinic in a supermarket and of course much has since been said of this being the new Tesco Law which it is not but rather Law In Tesco. With the support of both my MP Richard Harrington and Mayor, Dorothy Thornhill I approached Tesco with this very simple idea. I am proud Tesco not only supported me but actively took an interest in what I do and arranged for the Legal Awareness Weekend held on the 7/8 February. During the weekend I was assisted by six of my own former clients; advice was given, forms were explained and emailed, guidance and precedents were provided and grateful tears were shed, very much humbling on my part. All in all a hugely valuable experience within which both Tesco customers and staff alike benefitted whilst I gave a small something towards all that which has been taken away.
(The legal surgery will continue on a pro bono basis every other Thursday morning commencing 26th February)