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Family proceedings involving children where neither parent had legal representation, increased by 30% in the family court in 2013-14, revealed the National Audit Office last year in a report on legal aid.
I see the problems this causes 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, had to address.
We are increasingly aware of the legal aid cuts and the impact of this lack of funding and the resultant loss of access to justice to those who simply cannot afford it.
The fundamental aim of my practice therefore as the Women's Lawyer is to break down barriers, provide an affordable service in which litigants in persons (men and women alike) 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. The hourly costs of lawyers are a hurdle many people cannot afford and it should not mean the right to seek justice is only within the reach of those who can afford it.
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 the part of the individual.
It is the procedural tasks of conducting a family matter which the lay person finds most challenging. This can include form filling, ensuring the correct (and I ought to add every increasing) court fees are paid, not to mention court protocol and deadlines are potentially a nightmare. Forms are often 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, not only understanding the language of the law but for those whom are not proficient with English even basic communication is another barrier to overcome.
In light of this, I aim to provide a free legal surgery in an accessible place, in this case, a supermarket. The new Tesco Law if you like, which it is not but rather Law In A Tesco.
With the support of both my MP Richard Harrington and Mayor, Dorothy Thornhill I approached Tesco. Jane Ross of Tesco Community Care 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 supported 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 - 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 reaction at the surgery was exceptional. It became clear from queries linked to co-habititational breakdown that the (mis)concept of the common law husband/wife still exists among the public. There was also a profound ignorance in relation to the availability of legal aid. Several people were not aware that it no longer exists for those in family law. The success therefore of the weekend was in raising awareness of issues, as well as the advice provided.
There has to be a way to educate the public on legal issues. If they know what’s what, they’ll be more empowered.
The legal surgery will continue on a pro bono basis every other Thursday morning commencing 26th February.
Camilla Khawaja is a legal consultant, advising litigants in person, on private family law issues. Follow Camilla on Twitter: @TheWomensLawyer
0330 161 1234