A family law alternative business structure with charitable status is considering setting up a chambers as it expands its efforts to fill the justice gap for women ineligible for legal aid.
Lisa Hilder, volunteer director of Affordable Justice, said 85% of the women who came to its offices at the Preston Road Women’s Centre in Hull or accessed its services online had experienced domestic or sexual abuse.
Ms Hilder, a senior NHS manager, said Affordable Justice was set up in response to LASPO and its “swingeing cuts” to legal aid, which had a “massive impact on women fleeing domestic violence and abuse”.
She said a number of models were considered to provide an alternative for women who fell outside the legal aid eligibility requirements but could not afford high street law firms.
One was a straightforward charitable service, but it would be “difficult to make it sustainable”, another was for the women’s centre to directly employ a solicitor, but that raised questions of regulation.
The solution was a not-for-profit law firm which covered its own costs from fees that, at £99 an hour, it said were typically a third of those charged by high street solicitors.
The charitable objective of Affordable Justice is to provide the full range of family law services, particularly but not exclusively for women who have experienced domestic abuse.
Ms Hilder said they could be prevented from accessing legal aid by not being able to prove abuse or even verify their identity after leaving the home in an emergency, or by the eligibility requirements, which excluded women who were nurses, teachers or police officers.
She is joined as director of the women-only ABS by family law solicitor Sue Sedgwick and NHS manager Gill Cunningham. Ms Hilder is the head of finance and administration and Ms Sedgwick the head of legal practice.
She said Affordable Justice, which obtained its ABS licence in 2016, took a “practical approach” to its services, “working to achieve the outcomes that women want to achieve rather than the outcomes suggested by a bullish firm of solicitors”.
She went on: “Women can feel pressured or even bullied into taking part in court proceedings when they do not want to.
“We support their choices, even if it is not the most financially lucrative settlement they might achieve.”
Ms Hilder said the pandemic “opened the door much wider” to what Affordable Justice could achieve though online services.
An independent evaluation carried out by the ABS earlier this year found that it had helped more than 1,000 women across 100 locations in England and Wales. Ms Hilder said 60% of clients were now from outside Hull.
“We have clients who have been to high street solicitors, and end up paying tens of thousands in fees, while still not getting what they’re looking for.
“Their only choice is to represent themselves, stop taking part in the proceedings completely or come to us.”
Ms Hilder said Affordable Justice offered payment plans for women struggling to pay for hearings, and worked with credit unions in Hull and across the country to help women access reliable credit.
“We would like to increase our coverage across the country, so more women can have access to justice.”
One way of doing this would be to partner with women’s advice and other organisations in parts of the country where access to justice is limited.
Another would be to expand an “embryonic network” of barristers. Ms Hilder said this could include setting up an online set of chambers with employed barristers – as many female barristers preferred not to be self-employed.
She said Affordable Justice currently had two family law solicitors and a locum based in Lancashire, along with a paralegal and administrative staff. A new solicitor was being recruited, and the locum would be retained.
Ms Hilder added that, just like any law firm, the ABS contributed to the cost of its office space at the women’s centre, though this was lower than it would be in the centre of Hull.
The independent evaluation was carried out now that the service “has proved demand and is looking at models of growth and replication”.
It found that “women felt respected, believed and that staff are on their side”, 96% of women achieved the legal outcomes they wanted in full or in part, the pricing made “a significant difference” to 80% of women – saving clients around £1.3m in fees in total – and rates of self-representation were reduced by 69%.
The evaluation by Fiona Sheil of Heard Consulting and funded by The Sam and Bella Sebba Charitable Foundation, described Affordable Justice as “a unique legal offer by a not-for-profit feminist legal model operating with a gendered lens”.
It continued: “The approach reclaims instruments of power otherwise used to perpetuate abuses and undermine women’s self-determination: an all-women board and staff; avoidance of adversarial events; and a pricing model affordable to women whose access to justice has been curtailed by the ‘justice gap’.”
Ms Sheil wrote that the Affordable Justice staffing model was feminist as well. “A retort to the restrictive and in-built inequalities within UK legal firm working practices and structures (‘the legal profession isn’t a good place for women’), Affordable Justice extends holistic and empowering principles to staff.
“Working models prioritise flexibility and flat structures to enable contribution from all staff.”