David Cameron has stormed back into power, reclaimed his place as Prime Minister and is wasting no time in making manifesto promises reality.
His first move since re-election has been the appointment of his cabinet, particularly Michael Gove as Justice Secretary; who is tasked with the Tory pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act.
One top North-East Lawyer, however, has been just as quick to underline the massive human cost at stake.
Cris McCurley has been a family lawyer for more than 25 years – specialising in cases of domestic violence, child abduction and female genital mutilation – and has been an outspoken campaigner for human rights. She said: “We hope Mr Gove will listen to our worries and take on what we have to say. Sadly, we think it might be much of the same.”
Her disagreements with the government have come much earlier than this election, however.
It started when the Conservatives, under former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, proposed the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). The law, which came into effect of April last year, aimed to cut the costs of legal aid – the help given to those too poor to afford legal advice – and make it better value-for-money for taxpayers.
But Ms McCurley argues it left the most vulnerable in society, especially women and children, in grave danger. She recalls the story of Seema – a client she worked with several years ago.
“I don’t actually know where she is right now,” Ms McCurley said.
Seema came to the UK over ten years ago when she married a British national and moved into their family home in Huddersfield. After several years of physical abuse and virtual servitude, her GP began to notice that she regularly started cancelling appointments. Seema’s husband and his family were refusing to let her leave the house and had locked her in an upstairs bedroom.
When the GP discovered this, police were called and they responded that evening, but matters were not resolved easily. Two officers arrived at the house but soon turned back after an in-law pretended to be Seema, claiming everything was fine – as the real victim stayed trapped upstairs.
She was so distressed at the sight of officers leaving that she began to bang the window, cracking the frame in the process.
When police returned, family members claimed she had been locked up for her own safety as she was mentally unstable and had threatened her two children.
Seema, who spoke few words of English, was desperate to articulate her case and her frantic state led police to believe the family. She was taken away in handcuffs, without her shoes or headscarf, and spent the night in a cell.
When a translator was provided the next day, it quickly became clear what had been done and Seema was left with two options. Return to her children at the expense of living with her tormentors or seek refuge elsewhere.
That is when her sister brought her to Newcastle and she was introduced to The Angelou Centre, a women’s centre in West End of the city, and to Ms McCurley.
After seven months and 11 days and through legal aid funding, Seema was reunited with her children and a non-molestation order was put in place.
For Ms McCurley and The Angelou Centre, stories like Seema’s are not uncommon, but now that LASPO has come into effect, as many as 600,000 people with similar stories across the UK are estimated to be unable to get the type of legal help Seema received.
The law scraps aid for all cases involving family claims, immigration, welfare and employment tribunals – with one exception; where domestic abuse is provable. Even then, due to changes in what evidence is considered enough, 58% of women who suffered domestic abuse took no legal action, a Rights of Women study into LASPO has shown.
Another complaint is that LASPO requires evidence to be within the last two years and this is why Seema’s story becomes so heart-breaking.
Once reunited with her children, Seema began to work, rented a place of her own and started taking English lessons. She started volunteering at the Angelou Centre and was one of the first women to start repaying them for the help they provided. Then, almost two years after her ‘finding of facts’ hearing, her husband returned for the children and she has not been seen in Newcastle since.
Under LASPO, Seema is not entitled to any legal help and Ms McCurley says it is common that perpetrators manipulate the rules in such a way.
As a result, Ms McCurley was one of many who provided evidence to UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which ruled that the law fails to comply UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This has been echoed by the Justice Select Committee’s report released in March, which concluded that LASPO failed to reach most of its objectives, stating that any savings made are likely to have been pushed on to other parts of the system. Regardless, the government went ahead with cuts right until the election began and now the Conservatives have regained control, Ms McCurley expects they will continue as before.
She fears that if government succeed in scrapping the Human Rights Act, not only will LASPO continue to leave the most vulnerable without access to justice, but also that other rulings from the UN and the European Court of Human Rights will have no impact on our courts.
More worryingly, she fears that stories like Seema’s will become an everyday occurrence.
Seema’s name has been changed to protect her identity.