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Justice Week 2020

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Justice Week 2020

This week (24 February – 28 February) is Justice Week. The aim of this week is “to improve access to justice by boosting the profile of justice and the rule of law, placing them at the centre stage of public and political debate.”

This year’s theme is young people, their understanding of the law and access to justice.

Every day this week, some of our solicitors will respond to five questions asked by the Law Society, in readiness for Thursday’s Solicitors Chat.

Friday 28th February

Question: Thinking about what the law means to you and the #JusticeWeek themes of protecting freedom, fighting for rights, defending democracy and saving the planet, finish the sentence “I/We’ve used the law to…

Nadia Miah – Trainee Solicitor

“We have used the law to protect our freedom and rights. The law is the cornerstone to our democratic society and we have used the law to protect one’s rights and place responsibilities upon them. We have used the law to create a more civilised society and allow everyone to have access to the same opportunities and access to justice. Ultimately, the law is the bedrock of our society and without the law we would not be able to function properly as a civilisation.”

Sian Churchill – Solicitor in the Family Department

“I have used the law to successfully contest final care plans of adoption out of the family, and the children have either been returned to the parents or moved into the care of other family members.”

Maggie Kerr – Solicitor in the Employment and Dispute Resolution Department

I used the law to help people with their everyday legal issues and difficult situations, and people in distress.

In the good old days of legal aid, I was a trainee in the North West and we dealt with whatever came through the door:

Obtaining an injunction to stop a husband beating his terrified wife and children and finding a place of refuge for the wife and children with legal aid.

Arguing with the DHSS who were refusing payments to individuals who were desperate, successfully arguing legal points on behalf of clients. We used the “Green Forms” to advise up to £50 which could be extended if needed.

Helping an elderly couple who were the salt of the earth, upset because they had been late for the first time ever paying their TV licence on time due to illness and were still being harassed by letters threatening prosecution.

They were genuinely terrified of the stigma and the thought of being judged criminals. Two people who did not have the knowledge and confidence to stand up and therefore looked to us to help, and boy was that a battle with bureaucracy! Someone with a little power and no common sense following rules.

After lots of battles we stopped the totally unnecessary prosecution.

I recall a man looking terrified and shaking with nerves having been harassed by a manager at work and then seeing the same man on film from five years before a confident dynamic individual enthused by his subject. My firm was able to take on the case and obtaining not merely compensation for him, but making the company sit up and look at themselves in the mirror.

The icing on the cake was seeing the same man in our offices holding court, confidence returned.

On the lighter side I attended at sheltered housing for elderly people helping them with their legal issues: wills, benefits and guidance and being force fed lovely cakes! Afternoons once a fortnight I throughly enjoyed.

On a serious note this is why the Rule of Law and Justice are so important because the few cases I have highlighted show instances where legal aid may not be available today and the people involved may not have had the money, know how and confidence to pursue the problem but the issues were important to the people involved.

Imagine those same people fighting those battles without the expertise of lawyers helping them and providing a comfort blanket.

Janet Martland – Solicitor in the Family Department

“I’ve used the law to reunite families.”

Sara Dobson – Trainee Solicitor

“As a Trainee in the Wills, Trust and Probate department, I have used the law to prepare Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney for clients in order to assist their family in the future.”

Thursday 27th February

Question: Why is access to justice important? How can young people help protect the rule of law?

Sian Churchill – Solicitor in the Family Department

“Access to justice is so incredibly important. Unfortunately, I have personally seen the many changes that the cuts to Legal Aid have had on people’s ability to access justice. It has been nothing but detrimental. More and more people are finding it difficult to be granted legal aid, whereas before the cuts they would have been eligible. There is a lengthy and difficult process to get evidence of domestic abuse or child abuse before an application can even be made, and there are such stringent rules for these letters that they must follow.

This has led to a massive increase of litigants in person in family cases. They have to prepare their own applications, statements, bundles, as well as represent themselves in Court. I am certain that this is a direct cause as to why there are so many delays at Court, as the administrative staff and Judges simply cannot keep up with these types of cases.

Legal Aid is something that should be protected at all costs. I am passionate in my view that there should absolutely be no further cuts to this.”

Maggie Kerr – Solicitor in the Employment and Dispute Resolution Department

“In a nutshell the Rule of Law is that no one is above the law and all are treated equally among citizens. It requires that the law gives the same considerations and standards to people in similar circumstances.

No matter whether you are a political leader, a wealthy individual, teacher, cleaner, child, a person with a disability in theory we should all have the same access to justice and all bound by the same laws that have been created through an open and transparent process and are implemented in a fair and equal manner.

It is extremely important to have access to justice because if laws aren’t implemented, people won’t have rights. If justice isn’t accessible there will be injustice leading to a chaotic society where the most powerful and strongest are likely to rule with an iron fist, taking from society generally and not giving in return. As can be seen in some countries this means a countries economy collapses.

Young people can help protect the rule of law by holding governments to account the obvious one is by voting in elections. They can also highlight important issues of the day by campaigning in various forms including social media and direct action within the law and raising funds to help campaigns, providing a voice to make government, companies and individuals accountable to all people.

At present the access to justice is becoming more difficult for the individual due to cuts in legal aid, the cost of bringing a case to court with higher court fees, not enough funding to run the courts and arguably and the court system not helping it­ self by keeping abreast of modern technology.

Without access to justice there is a detrimental impact on peoples well being and on the public purse and all aspects of people’s lives: family, income, housing, and health.”

Sara Dobson, Trainee Solicitor

“Access to justice is extremely important because the public need to know that they have fundamental rights and that such rights will not be taken away from them unfairly. If this happens then appropriate options need to be put in place which are not limited to legal representation and the judiciary but access via other institutions such as ombudsmen and advice agencies which hold decision makers accountable.  Access to justice is essential to the rule of law.

It is vital to ensure that the rule of law is adhered to and that anyone who does not is held accountable to the same laws and that access to justice is in place for all levels of society, not just young people. Adhering to the rule of law leads to respect for human rights which in turn leads to democracy, and less corruption. In summary, of course young people can help protect the rule of law but so can older members of society. It is important that the rule of law is upheld by everyone which will go hand in hand with access to justice and will hopefully in time reduce the demand for it. “

Wednesday 26th February

Question: For a young person who may not know, how would you describe your role as a solicitor and the impact you have on society?

Sian Churchill – Solicitor in the Family Department

“I am a family law solicitor. In particular I am a children law specialist, and I also represent victims of domestic abuse in obtaining protective injunctions when needed. I generally represent parents or other family members when the Local Authority/Children’s Services become involved, but I also represent parents in contact and residence applications. These types of proceedings are a very emotional and stressful time for many of my clients. They often feel that their lives have been intruded on, and their families split apart.

My role is (and this is not an exhaustive list!) to advise them of the law, advise them on local facilities and resources to assist them in their case, represent them in the court proceedings, prepare their legal documents, consider theirs and the children’s Human Rights and what impact there has been on them, and at times support them as best I can throughout this difficult and worrying time.”

Annabel Andreou – Trainee Solicitor

“Put simply, the role of a solicitor is to advise and assist. Advise clients on what their position is with respect to the legal question they may have, and assist them with the legal processes which they may have to deal with.

In yesterday’s article, I spoke about the importance of young people understanding their rights and responsibilities. It is no secret when offering advice and assistance to clients, that we continuously ensure that their rights are being protected, and that clients know what their rights are going forward into the future. Solicitors have a responsibility to ensure that even the ‘smallest’ of injustices are appropriately dealt with, and in the quickest time frame possible.

The role of a solicitor will very much vary depending on the area of practice which that lawyers specialises in, and with this, will come different challenges.

For some solicitors in areas such as commercial practice, family law, private client and property, an understanding of tax and pensions is vital. Whilst solicitors are limited in the advice which they can give, clients can still expect their solicitor to have a good foundation of understanding in these areas. Similarly, some areas of practice require a solicitor to have a strong sense of commercial awareness, and the role of a solicitor will be to advise and assist, not just with respect to the legal and procedural issues, but also the wider socio-economic matters as well.

For some solicitors, their role might be more than just advising and assisting with the legal issues, and in fact, they may take on the role of being a quasi-counsellor, therapist, friend, and in some instances, part of a client’s support network. Quite often, solicitors will need to take on these various roles where the legal issue at hand is complex, acrimonious, sensitive and/or upsetting. Examples of such areas of practice might include, family law, public children, immigration, housing, crime, and private client.

Whilst the work which a solicitor produces is often key for client satisfaction, it is the development of ‘soft skills’ such as being able to sympathise, emotionally support, diffuse situations, and offer a hand to hold, that reassures the client that their lawyer is capable in advising and assisting them. Likewise, it is important for solicitors to commit to life-long learning, so that they can develop their knowledge base in order to provide a rounded and complete service to their clients.”

Katie Smits, Trainee Solicitor

“As solicitors, we advise clients on specialist areas of the law and how it affects their day-to-day lives. From purchasing their first home, to dealing with Wills and Estate Planning, to family matters such as cohabitation agreements. It is important that all members of society can speak to their solicitor about legal matters, be properly advised with all the facts, before continuing on whatever matters they require assistance with, be it a private or commercial matter.”

Tuesday 25th February

Question: What can be done to help young people improve their understanding of the law and how it affects them?

Sian Churchill – Solicitor in the Family Department

Social studies and sociology should and can be taught more widely at school. This will give young people the opportunity to have an introduction into the legal system and the impact this can have on them. Hopefully, many young people will find this interesting to learn about and seek further education about the legal system.

Further, more information about their rights should be available to young people on social media and online for them to find easily, should they need this to provide them with protection.

Maggie Kerr – Solicitor in the Employment and Dispute Resolution Department

“Working and having conversations with young people I can see they do have a very basic knowledge of law from the media and from lessons taught by teachers.  They understand some basic rights, such as, what to do if arrested and can search the internet to find out other information, though that source is sometimes dubious. 

Like a lot of adults they do not have a basic grasp of why we have laws, their purpose, the judicial system and a separation between civil and criminal issues.  They are also unaware of the help available to them from organisations such as Citizens Advice, Shelter, LawWorks , etc.

As my colleague Sian Churchill noted on Monday having the information can help change attitudes towards areas of issue such as domestic abuse in relationships.

The trick is to find a place with an audience of young people, people who have the knowledge coupled with the enthusiasm to engage and educate young people. I am sure we all remember that enthusiastic teacher who grabbed our attention and the one whose lessons we slept through.

Sadly with the demise of Youth Clubs, that leaves Schools and possibly organisations such as the Scouts to provide the place with an audience.

Local lawyers could provide the knowledge and enthusiasm and leave a lasting impression that the justice system is part of their every day life while providing enough information to use the correct sources to investigate further.

In the long term this could be provided as part of a country wide initiative, with an agreed format of interactive workshop. This could be backed up with tutorials and information on sources such as youtube, apps and websites.These sources on their own may engage young people but I suspect the need for face to face learning is still the key to helping young people understand the law and how it affects them.

If we take a step back educating people can start earlier with simple messages and simple explanations to younger school children as part of an ongoing education, timed at different age groups through their school life, from simple messages to more involved discussions and workshops as part of the curriculum. Who doesn’t remember their Green Cross Code for the older audience or 5 a day for the younger readers?”

Katie Smits, Trainee Solicitor

” I think that law should be taught within the education system from an early age. Young adults should be aware of how the law affects them and what it means to them, and how they can use their rights and understand the rights of those around them. Law firms, the Law Society and other practices could also host more awareness days, such as open days, events and moot court days, for younger adults, rather than something that is typically just done at Law School. “

Annabel Andreou – Trainee Solicitor

“Developing an understanding of the law goes hand in hand with developing an understanding of one’s rights and responsibilities. It is important to recognise that when we think about young people’s understanding of the law, we must not take the view that teaching a young person the details of legislation and case is law is enough. Instead, our attitude needs to be based around ensuring that young people know what their rights and responsibilities are, as indicated by the law.

More importantly, we need to take a wide and diverse approach to this, that recognises today’s challenges. Sometimes it is too easy to focus on teaching young people about the rights which they have as possible victims and complainants, without giving much attention to ensuring that young people know their rights, should they ever find themselves in the situation where they are the accused. For example, it is vital that victims of gang violence know their rights, and they know of the resources available, but at the same time, we must make sure that young people know the rights available to them should they ever be stopped and searched, arrested, and/or held in custody.

Furthermore, it can sometimes be too easy when teaching young people about their rights and responsibility to focus on crime and violence. Young people need to understand that the law offers various rights and responsibilities for a whole array of issues such as; housing, social security, benefits, immigration issues, and so on.

In order for young people’s understanding of the law to be improved, we need to change the way we teach young people in schools. We need to ensure that ‘law’ is being taught to children from the ages of 11 all the way through to 18. Clear guidance needs to be provided within a revised national curriculum that is age appropriate. At the moment, many schools do not go on to teach Citizenship past the age of 15. As young people come closer to completing their secondary and college education, it is more important that they know their rights and responsibilities as they begin to prepare to leave school and go ‘into the real world’. We must be teaching our 17 and 18 year olds the rights and recourses which are available to them, especially with respect to issues such as housing and social support, which for some school-leavers may become matters which they have to deal with shortly after leaving school. Likewise, young people need to know their rights and responsibilities when it comes to more sensitive matters such as domestic violence, child-care proceedings, and criminal offences, should they ever find themselves as either complainants or accused of such issues.

Justice is only effective when everyone understands the position that they are in, and understands what recourses are available to them.

Monday 24th February

Question: Why is it important for young people to understand the justice system and rule of law?

Michael Scutt, Partner and Head of the Employment and Dispute Resolution Team

“The rule of law is the cornerstone of any civilised and economically successful country and has to be above all other political and economic interests.  Without the rule of law democracy cannot exist and minorities risk discrimination and persecution. Businesses cannot thrive and corruption becomes endemic.  A strong, independent justice system which can uphold the law without fear or favour of or to any one interest, including the Executive, is the expression of the rule of law.  Without the rule of law we would live in anarchy.

It is not just young people that need to understand the rule of law, as media coverage of the Gina Miller court cases over Brexit and the judicial review challenges to the Government’s prorogation of parliament before the election showed.  In a political vacuum the rule of law is all we have. With a strong government, the rule of law is there to prevent a slide into totalitarianism.

Everyone, not just young people, need to recognise this.”

Sian Churchill – Solicitor in the Family Department

“The Justice System oversees, when necessary, almost everything in our day-to-day lives. Often it is viewed as some obscure or rare issue on the television, when really it surrounds us daily. Whether it be a criminal case if someone is a victim or alleged perpetrator of a crime, small claims to have money refunded,  family courts to deal with contact with children/divorce/domestic abuse, Human Rights, landlord and tenancy disputes and much, much more.

Having access to education about the law means having access to education about your rights. It can help change attitudes towards areas of issue, for example rape in marriage and domestic abuse in relationships.

The Courts provide us with protection and allow parties the opportunity to present their case, and be listened to, by a neutral Judge or Jury.

The Justice System is, therefore, all encompassing in our lives. “

Katie Smits, Trainee Solicitor

“It is the foundations of our society, it protects the rights of every person and it is therefore essential young people understand their rights and of their peers/colleagues around them from as early as possible.”

Nadia Miah, Trainee Solicitor

“It is important that young people are educated on the justice system and rule of law as both are fundamental to our lives. Understanding both would mean that young people would understand the way the law works and their rights as citizens. “