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Woman of the year?

Enough of the affaire Dunham. Enough of the rows about banknote feminism.

Let me give you an early nomination for Woman of the Year.

Let me introduce you to Rebecca Stevens of Withy King solicitors.

Don’t take my word about Rebecca. Read what was said in a recent High Court judgement.

The father’s modest earnings disqualify him, and therefore the mother, from receiving
legal aid. They cannot afford to fund private representation. They are, at present,
wholly dependant on the good will of members of the legal profession who, to their
enormous credit, and acting in the highest traditions of the profession, are acting pro
bono, that is, for no fee and paying their travel and other expenses out of their own
pockets.
20. Indeed, in the case of Ms Stevens she has been prepared to go even further. The father
has a learning disability. He is a “protected party” within the meaning of Rule 2.3 of
the Family Procedure Rules 2010. As a matter of law he is not able, as a protected
party, to act without a litigation friend. Quite apart from that, the father’s learning
disability in any event requires him to have considerable support and assistance to be
able to participate effectively in the proceedings. The Official Solicitor has agreed to
act as his litigation friend. The Official Solicitor cannot be compelled to act as
anyone’s litigation friend. His practice is to agree to act only if there is funding for the
protected party’s litigation costs, because his own budget – the monies voted to him
by Parliament – is not sufficient to enable him to fund the costs of litigation of the
type the father is involved in. The Official Solicitor was willing to act here only
because the father’s solicitor and counsel have agreed to act, thus far, pro bono. But
without the protection against an adverse costs order which the father (and
derivatively the Official Solicitor) would enjoy if the father had legal aid, the Official
Solicitor has a possible exposure to an adverse costs order – for instance, if the local
authority was to obtain an order for costs against him – which, understandably, he is
unwilling to assume. The consequence is that the Official Solicitor was not willing to
act as the father’s litigation friend unless Ms Stevens agreed, as she has, to indemnify
him against any adverse costs orders. And as if all this was not enough – indeed, far
more than enough – I am told that Ms Stevens has spent in excess of 100 hours, all
unremunerated, working to resolve, thus far without success, the issue of the father’s
entitlement to legal aid. This is devotion to the client far above and far beyond the call
of duty.

Now, the issue at hand in the case of D was whether a council could order that a child be adopted against the wishes of the parents.

Without Rebecca Stevens the case would never have got to court. She gave up weeks of her time, and guaranteed to pay the council’s costs in the event of an adverse costs order, because she thought it wrong that the parents should be unrepresented and voiceless in the face of power.

The case would have got to court prior to the 2013 changes to the Legal Aid rules. As Sir James Munby observed

No doubt it is some imperfection on my part, but I confess that I struggle to understand the policy or rationale underlying this…

As @JackofKent (David Allen Green) pointed out, the language in Munby’s judgement is measured, critical and utterly damning of the government’s reforms.

Thus far the State has simply washed its hands of the problem, leaving the
solution to the problem which the State itself has created – for the State has
brought the proceedings but declined all responsibility for ensuring that the
parents are able to participate effectively in the proceedings it has brought – to
the goodwill, the charity, of the legal profession. This is, it might be thought,
both unprincipled and unconscionable. Why should the State leave it to private
individuals to ensure that the State is not in breach of the State’s – the United
Kingdom’s – obligations under the Convention? As Baker J said in the passage
I have already quoted, “It is unfair that legal representation in these vital cases
is only available if the lawyers agree to work for nothing.”

This case, exposing the shambles at the heart of the government’s legal aid reforms, would not have happened without Rebecca Stevens. I raise my glass to her, and nominate her my woman of the year, for her charity towards people in need, and for her impact.

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This entry was posted on November 4, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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