June Venters was admitted to the roll of solicitors in 1984, appointed QC in 2006 and the first woman solicitor to take Silk, and called to the Bar in 2017.
In 2006 when I became a Silk and in the week leading up to the Silk appointments, the most fundamental review of legal aid was published. Therefore, my appointment was bittersweet. On the one hand, I was delighted as well as somewhat surprised to have become the first woman solicitor to take Silk. On the other hand I realised that I was about to see the most fundamental changes to legal aid since the Clement Atlee Labour government had first introduced it through the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, particularly in the fields of law in which I specialised.
My crusade for legal aid
The day I opened the envelope congratulating my elevation to Silk was the day I decided to use that elevation, to the best of my ability, as a platform to "crusade" for legal aid and most importantly the right of all members of society to access justice and not only just the privileged few.
I spent the next two years speaking out publicly against the planned cuts and spoke incessantly of the consequences such cuts would have on the public and particularly the most vulnerable members of society. It was whilst doing this that my pro bono advice and mediation surgery was born.
By coincidence, I discovered that a client of mine, a mother whom I was representing in family proceedings, was also the patient of my own GP, Dr Derrick Hinkes. Because of this, my GP and I worked together to assist her to access support and services she needed.
When her case concluded, and being like-minded, we reflected on whether we could provide a service together that would complement our respective professions because we recognised the overlap that exists. We both recognised that a patient who was under stress because of legal issues frequently suffered physical or mental ill health requiring the services of a GP, whose resources were already under enormous strain. The stress inevitably increased, as did the medical support required, if the patient was not able to access justice and, therefore, unable to seek the resolution they so badly needed.
After some careful thought and planning, I suggested that I should open a pro bono advice and mediation service operating from the GP's surgery one evening a week. I planned to provide this service personally. This service is now in its 10th year.
Doctors and lawyers working together?
Having decided upon such a venture, my GP and I then had to sell our idea to his professional colleagues and mine who initially met with the idea with an understandable degree of scepticism. Doctors and lawyers working in collaboration was a bit of a novelty. However, we persevered and achieved agreement that I would give this a trial run.
Within no time at all my surgery was full of members of the public who for one reason or another could not access legal aid, and therefore, justice. Although my surgery was meant to operate from 18.00-20.00 on Monday evening, very often I would be there until after 22.00.
The bank account scam
Over the years I have seen many a case come through the door, some more serious than others. One of the cases that I believe reflects a success of the surgery was the bank account scam. I recall a couple coming to see me who had lost the entirety of their life savings, which was in the region of £48,000. A fraudster had called them to say their account had had a suspicious activity. He advised that they should contact their bank to change accounts immediately. It was, sadly, a bank fraud.
Their bank abrogated all responsibility and this couple faced financial ruination. Struck by the injustice of what had happened, I contacted a government minister whom I had met on my various public speaking crusades for legal aid. He was impressively helpful in raising the issue in Parliament and as a result the bank was then persuaded to reimburse the entirety of the funds to the couple. Whilst I cannot take any personal credit for the outcome, without my chance meeting with this couple at my walk-in pro bono surgery, this may never have happened.
The female vicar
One of the saddest cases I have seen at the surgery was a female vicar. She lived in the same house as her husband and their three children. Her husband was controlling. The house was in his name as were all their bank accounts and building society accounts. There had been no violence and it was at a time when courts struggled to accept that "controlling" behaviour amounted to domestic violence, or, as I prefer to call it, domestic abuse.
She couldn't apply for an injunction which would have entitled her to legal aid to then apply for a divorce which is what she wanted. Her husband had agreed to "release" her from the marriage if she agreed he could keep the house and all the savings. She was virtually penniless with no chance of purchasing a property of her own for her and the children. There was nothing I could do. She needed specialist legal advice and representation, which was beyond what I could offer on a pro bono basis.
Lack of access to legal aid
In the ten years of running the surgery, I have seen numerous cases where the lack of availability of legal aid has prevented a wife or husband from issuing divorce proceedings because they could not afford the legal representation they so clearly needed. Equally, cases involving children have come through the door of my walk in surgery where parents were denied contact by the other parent and couldn't afford representation at court to challenge this. There were also the cases where the other parent was able to fund legal representation in children proceedings, which placed them at a distinct advantage in the court proceedings against the unrepresented parent.
It is cases of this nature that motivated me to open the surgery and what has driven me to keep it going. However, as a small niche practice, I don't have the resources to "run" a case from start to finish. All I can offer is a "walk in" service. I continue to believe that legal aid should be available to all members of society. To remove it in the way it was has created considerable unfairness and inequality in the justice system. I can appreciate the limitation on resources but increasing means testing and contributions would have been a far fairer way of addressing the financial strain of legal aid.
Whilst I am proud of my pro bono surgery, I don't believe it is a substitute for a properly funded legal system.
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