Fiona Bawdon reports on how a Justice First Fellow’s project helped RCJ Advice in central London secure £1.1m funding to ensure more domestic violence victims nationwide can get legal protection.
When Alexandria Lowry began her Justice First Fellowship project at RCJ Advice, her aim was to offer a service to domestic violence victims in the London area, ensuring they had the specialist legal advice they needed. In the first eight months, or so, Alex advised around 50 violence victims, who would otherwise not have been able to get help, as well as continuing her legal training and other family work at the agency.
However, in a development neither she nor her colleagues would have predicted, thanks in part to Alex’s one woman project, many, many times that number of domestic violence victims throughout England, are set to have access to legal advice which could potentially save lives.
- The Legal Education Foundation’s Justice First Fellowship reached its fifth year and created its 50th fellow during 2017-18. Under the scheme, TLEF funds trainee solicitor and barrister posts at advice agencies, law firms, law centres and barristers chambers across the UK. As part of the fellowship, trainees are also expected to devise and run their own project, aimed at increasing access to justice and potentially providing a future income stream for their host organisations.
- Fiona Bawdon is head of communications at The Legal Education Foundation.
The project that Alex ran, together with the strong working relationships RCJ Advice had with women’s organisations such as Rights of Women (RoW), led to a series of conversations, which sparked an idea, which is now set to become a reality. Earlier this year, RCJ Advice was awarded £1.1m from the government’s Tampon Tax Fund, to set up (in conjunction with RoW), a ground-breaking domestic violence legal advice scheme: Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors – or Flows, for short.
The project involves partnering with a host of key nationwide networks, and it is expected to be a game-changer in increasing the number of domestic violence victims who have access to legal advice.
Alex is one of 15 Justice First Fellows whose training contracts were funded by TLEF last year. As part of their Fellowship, as well as their legal training, Fellows are expected to set up and run their own access to justice project. Alex’s project was a family consultancy service, aimed at domestic violence victims who would otherwise go un-helped – not because the law can’t help them, but because the cost of legal advice is beyond their reach. Too often, women who are denied legal aid under the means test, are left with nowhere to turn because they can’t afford to pay the costs of obtaining a court order against their abuser.
RCJ Advice has long specialised in family law, and a large proportion of this work relates to domestic violence. Director Alison Lamb says the idea for a dedicated service for women ineligible for legal aid, was in response to a well-recognised gap in legal provision, where some victims needing an urgent injunction are left without the protection that could have kept them and their families safe. Alex already had experience of obtaining non-molestation orders from her previous work as a family paralegal, so it seemed an obvious fit.
The service would be on a modest scale, but for those Alex was able to help, it would make a huge difference to their lives. Alex set up a dedicated phone number and email address, so she could be contacted direct if refuges had a client needing urgent help. The clients could come to her office or, if they were unable or unwilling to do that, she would go to wherever they felt safest. As well as offering a service to provide emergency injunctions, Alex could also help with less urgent, but still vitally important issues, such as disputes over access to children.
Alex describes a recent case where a pregnant 16-year old needed an injunction against the father of her child. The girl’s young age meant her legal aid application was assessed on her parents’ income, but they were estranged from their daughter and unwilling to pay her legal fees. Her case was urgent because her ex-partner, who was much older and had been violent earlier in her pregnancy, was about to be released from detention. He had been in touch to say as soon as he was let out, he would be coming for her and the baby. Without the service offered by Alex, it is unclear how this young mother-to-be would have obtained the legal help she needed.
Alex recounts what happened after she got the call: ‘I went to meet her at the refuge. Went to court with her the next day and got her a non-molestation order. I then went to the return hearing with her as well.’ Alex was able to secure a year-long order stopping the teenager’s ex-partner from approaching her. ‘So that’s in place now and it just gave her peace of mind. She was eight months pregnant by then, and she said to me that she now felt she could finally enjoy her pregnancy, because now she felt safe. I thought that was so lovely.’
A feature of the family consultancy project was it entailed observing at close hand the impressive work of independent domestic violence advocates – or ‘IDVAs’ – in supporting violence victims. Alex says: ‘The work they do is amazing. They provide vital handholding and support, and they really do give a lot of comfort to women.’ However, both Alex and the advocates she was working with began to realise there was a way the role of the IDVAs could be made even more effective.
Alex explains: ‘One of the first IDVAs who came to court was saying how impressed she was with the advice I was able to give.’ Accompanying a woman to court, to help her feel safe, and give moral support, is often a key part of their role; IDVAs do not, however, generally receive any legal training.
Alison adds that what Alex was finding matched the experience of valuable frontline initiatives, such as Citizens Advice’s Ask Re project, which aims to identify hidden victims of domestic abuse. Once victims are identified under the scheme, agencies are then reliant on building links with external organisations to take the cases, and even to find out if clients qualify for legal aid. There was, says Alison an increasingly clear consensus about the legal advice gap for a wide range of frontline workers.
And so, the idea for Flows, was born, resulting in a grant application being submitted to the Tampon Tax Fund just before Christmas 2017.
Under the Flows scheme, frontline domestic violence workers at 850 different organisations will get access to legal advice, an online discussion forum, and tools, so they can either help women needing legal advice directly, or, if necessary, easily refer them elsewhere.
The funding covers the creation of a Flows team: a Flows lead; a dedicated solicitor, which will be Alex’s post for the next two years; two paralegals (who will be available to frontline workers via phone or email); and a co-ordinator. RoW staff are delivering the online discussion forum, where workers can share experiences and expertise.
As well as having access to legal advice, participating agencies will be trained in how to use RCJ Advice’s award-winning CourtNav online application tool. Workers will be guided through filling in a non-molestation order application form, and these along with supporting statements will be checked by Flows solicitors before being submitted to the court.
Women eligible for legal aid, will be directed to local ‘buddy firms’; those living in advice deserts will be linked with lawyers who can help. The scheme is also aiming to recruit two family lawyers, who will be posted in agencies in areas where there is currently no local legal provision. Flows partners include Refuge, Women’s Aid, Personal Support Unit, as well as Citizens Advice, some local authorities, and lawyers’ groups. The police have also expressed an interest.
Case study: Marianne’s story: ‘She literally held my hand throughout the whole thing’
Marianne, 30, has a job in administration she enjoys, and three school-age children, who keep her busy. Her oldest is studying for his GCSEs; the middle one recently started at secondary school; while the ‘baby’, still has a few more years left at primary school.
Marianne is estranged from the children’s father, following years of serious physical and sexual abuse, including attacking her on the street and trying to run her over. The abuse has taken a terrible toll, but it was a long time before she sought help.
When she did, Marianne recalls that the police were sympathetic, but could offer limited practical help. She was assigned a domestic violence intervention officer, but the panic alarm they gave her brought little reassurance. ‘Knowing how violent he is and the fact he has actually threatened to take my life and my children’s lives, I knew the alarm wouldn’t be enough.’
When her ex-partner took to standing outside her house night after night police told her there was nothing they could do without proof. She was advised to take a photo of him out there, but she was too scared to even attempt to do so.
An officer suggested she take her children and go to a hotel, but that was beyond her financial means. As a family of four, staying with friends was not an option either, and she was worried about disrupting her eldest’s GCSE studies. ‘They would have had to do their homework on the floor, and it just wasn’t practical.’ The council said they would rehouse her, but nothing seemed to happen.
Marianne was advised to see a family lawyer to get a non-molestation order, but her legal aid application was refused. ‘They turned me down because they said I earned a lot of money, but
I didn’t. I don’t receive any benefits. I don’t get any help with my three boys – and I also have debts to pay.’ The police and other agencies had assumed she would get legal aid. When she didn’t, they appeared to have run out of suggestions. Things got so bad Marianne was scared to go to work, and even thought about ending her own life.
It was then she was referred to see Alex Lowry at RCJ Advice, whose Justice First Fellowship family consultancy project was designed with exactly the likes of Marianne in mind: women who need legal intervention to keep themselves and their families safe, but who don’t qualify for legal aid, and can’t afford the cost of obtaining a non-molestation order.
Marianne recalls that first meeting with Alex. ‘She put my mind at ease, even though I was in a state of panic. She really took over. She said to me I don’t need to worry anymore.’
At first Marianne found it hard to talk in detail about the abuse, but Alex explained the judge needed to understand why the order was important. ‘She was very warm, and there was no judgment involved at all. I was going through so much, it was hard to let everything out. I had been going through this for so many years, and when I reached out for help, no one was able to help me, but Alex.’
Alex filled in the forms and went with Marianne to court. ‘She told me not to worry, and she will speak on my behalf.’
As well as keeping her ex-partner away from the road where she lives, the order also bars him from approaching her children’s school. He can be arrested on sight if he breaches its terms, and the police also now have her numbers on high priority, so would know to react quickly. The order lasts for a year and Alex told her to come back if she needs an extension. Marianne says she now has peace of mind and can already see the difference in her sons.
Marianne says Alex made sure she understood all the options and how the order worked. ‘She explained everything to the point where I was able to explain it to my parents. I was able to explain it to my colleagues. I was able to explain it to the school. It was extremely nice having her there. She was literally holding my hand through the whole thing.’ Alex even set her up with a PO box address so she and her ex can be in communication about the children.
She adds that the service went beyond her expectations. ‘People tend to look at you and say, why would you stick around in an abusive situation? But Alex didn’t. There was no judgment in her tone. No judgment in her look. No judgment at all. All she wanted to do was help me.’
A version of this article will appear in TLEF’s forthcoming 2018 Annual Review, to be published in early January 2019.