Jeanette was almost catatonic when we saw her first. Suffering from intense Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and profound depression, she was terrified of strange men, and she also heard voices.
Oh, and she speaks French and a little English.
A victim of a bloody conflict in Africa, she had been imprisoned, tortured and brutally gang raped before she managed to escape and make her way to our shores. When she arrived we put her in prison for travelling on false documents. Then we chucked her out on the streets.
Her first asylum appeal was botched so she had no right to be housed or fed. Sofa surfing or sleeping rough, she was frequently assaulted and had her meagre possessions taken.
Her speech was slurred and she stared straight ahead. Psychologists call it lack of affect. Looking like she isn't really aware of anything else around her.
Telescoping a couple of years into a few lines, we got her housed by social services, got a new asylum claim in, supported her long term counselling by experts in the treatment of torture victims, went to court several times, and got her her legal status.
At which point she was evicted again.
Telescoping again, we referred with submissions, and she was refused by the Council on the grounds she hadn't been traumatised enough. Spoke to doctors, wrote letters, kept a roof over her head, studied legal cases, forced the DWP to pay her benefits, and finally the humane review officer conceded that she had suffered enough.
Finally she will have the right to be housed.
And finally the thousand yard stare you get if you're an athlete, a soldier or a war victim has begun to soften. “Ca va?” I say to her, and she smiles at my accent, and I think there's a bit of a twinkle in her eye.
This, I say to myself, is what it's all about.
Under funding cuts proposals, 90% of what we just did would not be funded. The Government's position appears to be that as all Jeanette had to do was deal with various government departments,who obviously make the right decision all the time (You what!), and thus she has no need for legal advice. So nobody would do it.
We have managed to deploy up to a hundred volunteers a year in some years. We're experts at getting people to pitch in for free, but the reality is that these cuts could mean there would not be enough gas to prime the pump and we would close.
The reality is that by cutting Jeanette's right to advice on her entitlements thousands of women in the future will fall further into oblivion. But let the reasons given by our government be at least honest.
The advice that all our Jeannettes have received should be professional, independent, competent and legal. It cannot be said that the various solicitors, barristers, doctors, volunteers and citizen witnesses that have been paid and given time were involved in anything other than legal proceedings. We didn't just do tea and sympathy. We did our jobs.
Let our government say that in a time where bankers have made us bust we can't afford proper services. Don't say the services we provide are anything other than expert.
30 years of giving free legal advice, gone in the blink of an eye.