Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Potato Jesus

It’s early on the bus from Haringey to Hackney. Valentine crams on the double-decker with five schoolchildren in uniform and neck-ties, chattering wildly.  Ahead of them is an elderly woman, and ahead of her there are forests of slightly grim faced people headed into work.

The top  floor of the bus is crammed, and people are sidling on the steps,  hoping someone else will get off at the next stop.
Someone a few seats back tells us the Lord has arrived. She tells us that only the Holy Word will wash us clean, that God loves us all. “Jesus is a potato” she cries, taking an unexpected tack.  In London fashion we ignore her, but some are a little more askance.  Eyes roll. Then we get to the office.

Zadie's husband  Zak is beating her up.   

Changes in legal aid kicked in last month. Two thirds of cases have had funding withdrawn. Where it remains, the bureaucracy is more complicated.  If Zadie walks into the office bruised and bleeding, she needs all her papers before she can get legal aid to get protection against domestic violence.

The gateway is MARAC, the Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference. A sensible mechanism for the police to meet with the council and local agencies, and do a risk assessment- but something which takes time. Only when she has the right letters can Zadie get legal aid from a family lawyer. In the meantime she is at risk from Zac.

Jump forward six weeks. Armed with a documented high  risk assessment  Zadie  gets an injunction preventing Zac from coming within 100 metres of her.

She also applies homeless to the council. The council tells her that even though she has suffered 10 years of disgusting domestic violence, culminating in a stabbing,  she is not vulnerable- because now that she is away from violent Zak she has nothing to worry about. So the Council will not house her. She will have no choice but to return to Zac after all.

We make representations to the Council, ask for a review of the decision, threaten judicial review. The housing officer agrees to put her in a hostel while her file is looked at again. But before we do this, we have to send Zadie away to get her last three months banks statements.

Today legal aid is still available for homelessness as well as in many cases of domestic violence. If  Zadie's problems make the world seem cynical and uncaring, the new legal aid changes now being proposed are going to make the madness even worse.

Zadie's husband  Zak is beating her up. Zadie is Dutch, and has only been in the UK for six months.

Under new  proposals, unless Zadie has had Home Office papers for a year she can't get legal aid. And so,  Zadie really would have to  go back to the only home she has, with violent Zac, to endure  the same cycle of domestic violence all over again.

The State says that these new measures are necessary to sustain confidence in the legal aid system. It is essential to ensure that the public is not worried about European free-loaders coming over and getting legal aid to do god knows what. Like get protection against domestic violence, legal advice if their landlord tries to evict them through the courts, or with boot-boys and brickbats.

To me, this is a license for domestic violence against women who do not have the right immigration papers, or who do not have them with them because they left them when they fled. It is also a license for unscrupulous landlords. Effectively it strips the rights of anyone whose immigration status is difficult to understand or prove.

The crazy lady on the bus finds consolation in a religion where all are weighed equally. If  justice means anything at all, protection of basic liberties should be provided irrespective of where they are born. Yet arbitrary cuts will make our clients fry like chips.

If this is justice, I'm a potato.


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