Sue Sedgwick is founder, director and solicitor of non-profit Affordable Justice
The prevalence of women who are victims of abuse being re-traumatised due to the way in which the legal process works through the Family Courts is a daily occurrence. This is one of the most concerning observations that has come out of an independent report we recently commissioned. Every day, my colleague Becky Brown and I are contacted by women who have nearly abandoned any hope of finding a just and legal route out of their untenable situations due to the structure of the family law system that allows their former partners to perpetuate that coercive and abusive control in the courts.
The report also showcased how our non-profit status – we charge, on average, less than a third of the cost of traditional commercial solicitors – has enabled over 1000 women to save £1,340,000 collectively on legal costs in the seven years since we first established the business in response to the reduction in legal aid – an act that affected women disproportionately. The quotes below are indicative of our findings.
“Perpetrators are adept at weaponising the objectivity of the courts to create false accusations of abuse and of ‘maternal alienation’, trapping women who are expected to facilitate contact between father and children, yet to do so creates an avenue for sustaining abuse.”.
“The family law system is failing women on three counts. Firstly, financial and cultural barriers prevent women from having fair and equal access; secondly, the poor response to women’s experiences and gendered disadvantage and abuse creates a disempowering, often harmful experience; and thirdly, these factors undermine women’s opportunity to articulate and choose the outcomes which matter most in the context of their lives”.
Often, our clients’ former partners opt not to take on their own legal representation, which means that as the only official advocates, we end up putting in more hours (at the woman’s expense) to make sure that applications for court hearings are pushed forward. Once in court, the former partner also has the right to personally cross-examine our client. We have coached numerous women through this terrifying situation – women who have already undergone years of torment and abuse. Unfortunately, the system allows this to happen, re-traumatising women on an emotional level and impacting them yet more on a financial level.
Our experiences demonstrate how domestic abuse, in its many different forms and legal childcare arrangements, are both prohibitively expensive and woefully weighted against the woman. It is our mission to advocate on behalf of women who have been disproportionately impacted since the erosion of legal aid in 2013. Whilst we began our work in Yorkshire and the Humber, we now work across England and Wales.
Affordable Justice is ideally placed to work alongside organisations, such as the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, to drive forward further research into the family justice system.
An Angel on My Shoulder was commissioned by Affordable Justice and funded by The Sam and Bella Sebba Charitable Foundation. It was written by Fiona Sheil, Heard Consulting.