“Domestic abuse is an epidemic in England and Wales, and the pandemic has enabled it to reach tipping point,” says Jessye from Rights of Women, a frontline women’s rights charity that provides free specialist legal advice to women experiencing domestic abuse and sexual violence, across England and Wales.
To mark International Women’s Day, we partnered with Rights of Women to raise funds for their lifesaving legal advice. We also caught up with their team to learn more about their work and the barriers to accessing justice faced by the women they hear from.
How, when, and why was Rights of Women formed?
Jessye, Communications Officer: “Rights of Women (RoW) was formed in 1975 as a direct response to the fifth demand of the Women’s Liberation Movement for legal and financial independence for women. A group of women legal workers founded the organisation to expose the bias against women in man-made laws and help women access justice, safety and equality through free and confidential legal advice lines and written information.”
What barriers do the women who use your services face when trying to access justice?
Olive, Senior Legal Officer, Family Law Advice Line: “Access to legal advice is the most significant barrier to justice for the women that use our advicelines. The requirements to be able to access legal aid are too strict resulting in women who rely on foodbanks to feed their children being told they are not financially eligible for legal aid.”
Deeba, Senior Legal Officer, Sexual Harassment at Work Advice Line: “Women who come forward about sexual harassment are often disbelieved and disparaged, especially if they are from minority and marginalised groups. They often experience victim-blaming and gaslighting, which has an impact on their mental health. This can make it harder to document evidence and put their case together. They may also need time to come to terms with the harassment and discrimination they have faced. Consequently, many find themselves unable to access justice due to the tight time limits the Employment Tribunal has for bringing claims.”
RoW was involved in the consultation process around the new Victim’s Code - how is the criminal justice system failing victims and is this something that you see first hand amongst your service users?
Hannah, Senior Legal Officer, Criminal Law Advice Line: “We have been actively involved in the consultation processes around the new Victims’ Code, which comes into force in April 2021, and we await with interest the new Victims’ Law. We are encouraged by many of the proposals put forward by the Victims’ Commissioner in her recent report, which makes some important points about the way perceive crime in our society – crimes are seen as an attack on the state and not against the victim, and proceedings are not there to put right the victim’s wrong but to enable the state to affirm the rule of law and inflict punishment.
At RoW, we often see the conflict between the best interest of the prosecution generally and the best interests of the victim survivor (i.e. intrusive mobile phone data collection from the survivor, or access to sensitive medical records). We support calls to re-conceptualise victims as participants – affording them distinct legal status within the criminal justice system and ensuring access to essential legal advice.”
Who are your advice line volunteers and how are they trained?
Jessye, Communications Officer: “Our volunteer legal advisers are vital to helping us support over 2,500 women survivors every year (through the advicelines). Our legal volunteers receive training from our expert senior legal advisers, and spend time shadowing the advice line, to help them gain an expert understanding of the issues that affect women who call us. At the start of the pandemic, we were able to adapt our services so that legal advisers can now operate the advice lines remotely. Meaning, women lawyers from across England and Wales can now volunteer with us!”
How can lawyers get involved with ROW?
Jessye, Communications Officer: “We urgently need more legal volunteers to help us meet the increased demand for our adviceline support during the pandemic, and beyond. If you are a woman, living in England or Wales, able to commit to one advice line session (2-3hrs) each month, and a qualified solicitor, barrister or legal executive with a current practising certificate and experience in either family, employment or immigration and asylum law, we would be delighted to hear from you.”
Support the campaign here: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/rights-of-women/
Apply to become a volunteer here: https://rightsofwomen.org.uk/get-involved/volunteer-with-us/