‘I’ve seen people in floods of tears’ – free law clinic director opens up about family court
- Credit: Archant
A year on from the setting up of the free Hertfordshire Law Clinic at the Uni of Herts, its director has explained how people are coping in the age of little to no legal aid.
Prior to lockdown, Amanda Thurston’s batch of budding lawyers used to support families acting in-person at the Watford & Hertford Family Courts, the only ones in Herts after many were closed.
Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Laspo), some areas of civil legal aid were put out of scope and removed from any legal aid coverage.
These included most cases involving housing problems, family law, immigration, employment disputes and challenges to welfare benefit payments, and this has essentially left those using the courts for anything other than criminal proceedings with no representation.
“You see occasional cases of domestic abuse or mediation where legal aid can be obtained for those on low incomes. There is a whole ream of people who cannot afford solicitors. A huge number of these are represented by themselves.”
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This is where the law clinic’s Support at Court project comes in and though it cannot offer legal advice in court, they used to be able to hold someone’s hand when they were before the judge.
“It’s a very emotionally charged setting,” she said. “I’ve seen people in floods of tears, clutching their papers and just trying to figure out when and how they are supposed to address the judge.”
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But now most of this has moved online and students are offering support via Zoom, which has helped the free service reach more people and allowed those accessing the court to not need to travel so far.
“There has been a constant backlog of hearings in family courts,” she explained. “And then there are the issues with COVID-19 and most courts did not have a clue what to do initially.”
Since remote hearings, this has have become more manageable as it is easier for families to access the court and they are becoming more efficient.
By the end of October, Hertfordshire Law Clinic’s student volunteers have helped 200 clients – members of the public from across the region – with legal advice and assistance with cases ranging from family law to commercial law.
“Access to justice is at an all-time low and has worsened,” she explained. “Those who are geographically, financially or emotionally vulnerable, or going through abuse, have now had it worse.
“You go up there [to the court] with your paperwork and there is no-one to help you. Most services are now online and that works for the next generation with WiFi.
“It’s not just where to go but you need the where with all to understand these things. Where to get court forms and how to fill them out, etc.” And this is where the Uni of Herts students help as they can look over the paperwork and help put it in order for a court hearing, or under the supervision of lawyers let people know what their rights are.
But Ms Thurston does not believe the issues surrounding closure of courts or little to no legal aid will be reversed anytime soon.
“Our country is crippled by so many issues at the moment,” she said. “I don’t think improving the legal system is top of the agenda. Though it would be lovely to think there could be more funding.
“What I would hope and look for is to make it less old fashioned. It’s a bit antiquated [and COVID-19] has accelerated this modernisation of the court system.”
The criminal system has been particularly affected by the pandemic as there are over 700 crown court trials – which need a jury – waiting to be heard and they won’t be cleared until 2023.
On Wednesday, November 18, the police and crime commissioner David Lloyd said: “To an extent where we are at the moment is at that crisis point, because the courts are seeing a backlog now which may well mean that we are not getting cases into court until 2023.
“It is not because the court service isn’t trying its best – it is because COVID restrictions have meant that a number of courts have had to close because of social distancing.”
Following the meeting a spokesperson for the HM Courts and Tribunal Service said: “More cases are being heard in Hertfordshire thanks to video technology and a temporary Nightingale Court.
“This is contributing to a national recovery effort, which is already seeing the magistrates’ backlog falling and the number of cases resolved in the Crown Courts trebling since April.”
According to the Ministry of Justice there are not yet any cases listed in the region for 2023.