The 25th November marks the United nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
MJLD's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Sarah Sharples met up with Emma Marshall who currently works as an Independent Domestic and Sexual Violence Advocate (IDSVA) at the domestic abuse charity, The First Step, Sophie Eaton a newly qualified Solicitor in Immigration and Asylum Law at Lei Dat and Baig Solicitors, Katie Camozzi a Senior Associate Solicitor in Family Law at MSB Solicitors and Isabel Hawkins, a recently qualified Barrister in Family Law at Unit Chambers to discuss the importance of women knowing where to turn for support and protection and how the law can assist.
Read more about their conversation below.
Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation, and the immediate and long-term physical and mental effects can be devastating. It is vital that women know where to turn for support and protection.
Emma Marshall in her role at The First Step, provides support, usually during the crisis stage, by advising on what appropriate safeguarding measures and options a person can consider to mitigate their risk. These may include sourcing refuge, providing information about civil injunctions and giving practical support at court. The First Step is the only service in the order that offers support to both high and low to medium risk victims.
It is also important that victims of abuse know how the Law can offer support and protection. I spoke with three lawyers working in Family and Immigration Law about how their roles can support victims of abuse.
Sophie Eaton is a newly qualified Solicitor in Immigration and Asylum Law at Lei Dat and Baig Solicitors. Sophie offers advice and support to women who are fleeing abuse to seek protection in the UK. She told me how her role offers support to victims of abuse:
“I meet a lot of women who have been subject to violence at the hands of male family members such as their husbands, fathers, brothers and uncles. This can be for something as simple as being perceived to have had contact with someone of the opposite sex. The violence, or fear of violence, is to such an extent that they have had to flee their home country. This means that the victims I meet are extremely vulnerable - they have left their family, their culture and all they have ever known because the violence they face is so severe.”
Victims may be fearful to seek help and therefore measures can be put in place to make someone feel safe and protected. Sophie told me how someone can feel safe when they come for support and advice:
“I always make sure that the environment is as comfortable as possible for them as I appreciate that it must be very distressing to relive these events. At the outset of our meetings, I remind the client that everything is confidential - many of the clients I meet fear that the perpetrators of the violence against them will find them, even though they are in the UK. Building trust between my clients and me is extremely important. What I can do within the remit of my role is somewhat limited so I will always signpost my clients to victim support organisations and their GP to ensure that they are getting further support, in addition to the legal advice that I can provide them with.”
Katie Camozzi is a Senior Associate Solicitor in Family Law at MSB Solicitors. Katie assists victims in recognising that the perpetrators’ behaviour is abusive and ensuring they know what proactive measures can be accessed. There can include Non-Molestation Orders, Occupation Orders and Prohibited Steps Orders. Katie says it is also crucial to signpost victims to relevant support organisations, such as Womens Aid, DASU, Savera, etc.
“Victims are incredibly brave to seek legal advice, but it is ensuring they have the strength and courage to see proceedings through and that support can be accessed through third party organisations.”
To obtain a perspective of what happens when victims attend court, I spoke with Isabel Hawkins, a recently qualified Barrister in Family Law at Unit Chambers, about how her role can offer support to victims of abuse:
“My role offers support to victims of abuse by trying to ensure that the client is as comfortable as possible when attending court. Confronting an abuser, even just hearing their voice or knowing they are on the other side of a screen can be nerve-racking and triggering for victims. Ensuring that clients feel they have a voice in proceedings is an important part of my role. However, there is a balance to be struck and my role involves ensuring that, whilst the clients are listened to and their experience is never dismissed, their expectations are managed, and realistic advice is given at every stage.”
Isabel also told me about what measures the courts put in place to help ensure someone feels safe and protected whilst attending:
“The use of screens, the vulnerable witness suite, staggered arrival times, and being able to bring a friend or family member along on the day of the hearing all work to make the experience more comfortable for victims. However, it is important for all professionals involved to remember that the proceedings themselves can be incredibly triggering, which is unfortunately sometimes unavoidable.”
Finally, I asked Sophie, Katie and Isabel to consider what they believe needs to change in the legal system as a whole to better protect victims and encourage those to seek support.
Sophie said: “I feel that the burden is still very much on the victim to show that they have been subject to violence. In my line of work, victims are subject to repeated questioning about the specific details of the violence that they have experienced. They’re then asked to provide evidence of this - much of which has been left in their country of origin and they have no way of accessing this. Without this evidence, clients are presumed to be less credible. I think there needs to be more understanding of violence faced by women all over the world to ensure that victims are initially believed, rather than doubted.”
Katie said: “I think there needs to be better collaboration between courts and lawyers to raise awareness of legal aid being available to victims of domestic abuse. Recently, more and more clients are only recognising this part way through proceedings, having dealt with it on their own. The judiciary should recognise legal aid criteria and signpost this from the outset to potential clients so they can have that initial advice, which is often crucial.”
Isabel said: “I think training is important for all professionals, from social workers to lawyers and judges. Training assists professionals at all levels in being able to effectively communicate to clients and to help them understand the process a little more.
“I believe there needs to be more funding available for organisations and third-party agencies to do work with families when domestic abuse is a concern. Finally, it would assist if legal aid was more readily available. Victims of domestic abuse can get legal aid if they meet the financial criteria and can provide certain evidence, but alleged perpetrators are not, and therefore very often one party ends up represented, whilst the other is not. This does not assist either party or the pursuit of fairness and justice and it can mean that proceedings are dragged out with little progress being made.”
Violence against women is a barrier to achieving equality, development and peace. Ultimately, it is important to continue the conversation, increase awareness and ensure victims know that they are not alone- there is a lot of support available.
The MJLD would like to extend their thanks to Sophie, Katie and Isabel for taking the time to shed a light on this important issue with us.
MJLD Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer
Trainee Solicitor at MSB Solicitors