Vlad (as we shall call him) works as a self- employed builder, or a plumber, or a joiner. His paperwork is haphazard. He has young children, with another little bundle of joy on the way. They say parenthood can be stressful.Mary has worked as a waitress in a cocktail bar, but when that didn’t work out she turned her hand to working as a cleaner. In her second trimester her ankles are quite swollen enough, thank you very much, and she has her hands full with the kids. She’s depending on Vlad to provide for their family.
Let us suppose that Vlad is stressed out and verbally abusive to Mary. Let us suppose that he beats her senseless, when he gets the sack. He’s very sorry afterwards, and it never happens again- OK, sure that’s true?Let us suppose Vlad gets himself arrested for violence , but when he is bailed to return at the police station in a couple of months he has nowhere to go but his flat with Mary, where he keeps his coffin. He pleads with her and she recognises that he is sorry, and in need of succour.
Then let us suppose that Mary enters into a cycle of forgiveness because she loves Vlad deep down, and doesn’t know how she will provide for the kids, let alone the nipper on the way. Let us suppose that Vlad has got a taste for violence, and tortures his family by word or deed.
What can Legal Aid do to help? Well, less than we used to.When Mary flees her Vampire Count with her life and her children she forgets her identity papers. Anyone who has fled domestic violence might grab the baby but forget about the mail. Without her papers the Council refuses to rehouse her. Without her papers she can get no benefits. There is anyway no legal aid for benefits advice anymore in 99% of cases.
We fill in 50 pages of Legal Aid forms.The Legal Aid Agency sends us a letter telling us that as we have not intensively documented Mary’s begging receipts there is no prospect of stopping Vampire Vlad. They tell us that she must give us all her documents for 3 months, an explanation for the £10.20 payment she made on 3rd June, fill out an income and expenditure form explaining how someone living substantially beneath the breadline is getting by. We do what we can.
Mary brought a letter from Susan, a neighbour who took her in and gave her succour. Chicken soup here, some pocket change there. Gill, who put her up for a couple of nights doesn’t want to get involved. Without meticulous receipts of her life as a beggar, no legal aid, no injunction.No garlic or holy water, I mean.
We chance our neck and apply for an injunction anyway. By midnight we have a magic piece of paper with a Judge’s signature, and mother and baby are off the street. Throughout this arduous process the baby is angelic. She doesn’t cry once.As I walk down Lower Clapton Road looking for a minicab that will go to south London, the rain is coming down like bullets. By the time I pass the Narrow Way, focus of the Hackney riots in 2011, I am soaked to the skin. Perhaps we will be paid, perhaps this will not happen when Mary’s Legal Aid Certificate is revoked. I know that I will have to spend at least 40% of my time on this case fighting for funding.
For the first time in many years the Legal Aid Agency has had its accounts approved by its auditors. But everywhere in the country homeless mothers are turned away from the door because their papers are not in order.Thunder rolls, but I hear Vlad’s demonic cackle. Legal Aid used to work, more or less. Now they’re having a laff.
But tonight Mary’s cheerful baby has somewhere dry to sleep. Who’s the sucker?