legal aid hasn't received as much attention as it really should with the impact it will have on personal cases and on the concept of justice in our society.
This is probably because like many things, few people think about how important access to the legal system is until they need it personally and obviously no one likes to imagine a situation in their life when they are desperate, vulnerable and in need. I certainly didn't and yet I have had need for a legal aid solicitor more than once in my life.
The first time was in December 2004 and I was living in a homeless hostel having been raped twice in the previous twelve months and while I was managing to hold myself together most of the time, the prospect of spending Christmas (and the first anniversary of my first rape which happened to be a few days earlier) alone in a hostel in Croydon, miles from my family and unable to even go and visit friends elsewhere in London due to my sign-in restrictions, was just too much. I couldn't do it. Faced by a wall of shoulder shrugging and ambivalence at Lambeth Council, I took myself to the library and found the contact details for a local solicitor who dealt with housing matters and accepted legal aid cases. I made an appointment and explained the situation. One snotty letter from the solicitor later and I had permission to go back to Belfast for a week for Christmas without further issue. I also got a better hostel place when I returned to London. I was immensely greatful to both the solicitor and the option to access legal help when no one else could help.
I did hope (in the nicest possible way) never to have to deal with a legal aid solicitor again, but a few years later I found myself very much in need of one. Following the disastrous handling of my second rape case by the Metropolitan police, I brought a formal complaint against the force. Over three years after I was attacked, the Met admitted that they had been wrong and that in their words, the investigation was 'completely worthless'. All the officers involved in the case were disciplined, the case was closed and I was free to move on. Unfortunately the next thing I needed to move onto was my cureent claim with the notoriously bureaucractic Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) to claim compensation for my attack. Exhausted and traumatised by the fight with the police, I couldn't face another battle without support. I gratefully accepted a recommendation for a legal aid solicitor from a friend to chivvy it along.
It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Instead of fumbling around and hoping for a fluke like I had with the police, I had the firm steady hand of my solicitor pointing me in the right direction and supporting me through some immensely difficult moments. Not only did she sort the paperwork and deal with the woefully inadequate staff at CICA, she helped give me the confidence to continue appealing to the police's better nature and embarrassment over my case to access information from my file I should never have seen. She also broke the news to me that even after my complaint was dealt with, the police had added insult to injury and lost my entire file, including the multitude of photos that had been taken of my injuries for evidence, most of which I was at least semi-naked in. She literally held my hand when we had to go over the written medical report from my rape exam at The Haven and I had to hear the finest details of injuries inflicted while unconscious. It was excruciating and gruelling and so personally draining, I couldn't have done it without her.
When the buff envelope from CICA with the decision letter about my compensation arrived a few short months later, I was exhilarated. My solicitor and I had done it. I could be grateful to her and to legal aid and go on and rebuild my life. Justice had finally been served! Then I read the letter...
CICA agreed that I had suffered an injury (as they term a rape) and agreed I was entitled to compensation. They also said that I had been drinking at the time of the injury and therefore was at least partly responsible for my injury, so they were withholding 25 % of my compensation for that reason. Aside from the fact I was claiming for an injury that had taken place while I was drugged and unconscious thus rendering my alcohol consumption irrelevant, here was a government body telling a woman that she was to blame for being raped in the 21st Century.
Feeling slightly overwhelmed from the letter, the first person I phoned was my solicitor. Those of whom who know me are expecting to hear a tirade of injustice and a litany of complaint followed. Instead, I thanked her for the support and hard work, told her I couldn't fight further, could see their point and would be accepting the reduced award as it was better than nothing. Despite being utterly incandescant with rage, she listened to what I had to say without changing my mind or criticising my choice and told me she would call me in a week to arrange signing the acceptance form and see how I felt about it all then.
Exactly seven days later she phoned me back and listened to me explode into a ball of rage who was determined to fight their judgemental decision to the hilt. Knowing me well from working side by side in stressful circumstances, she had gambled on me just needing a short breather to gather myself before seeing how unfair CICA's actions were. She had left me to come to that decision myself and spent the week arranging to set a judicial review in action to challenge it and make sure I got full payment and all blame removed.
Safe to leave the work in her ever capable hands, I went off leaving her to it and had another nervous breakdown. The months between February's judgement and a revised decision in July were the most painful, most desperate and most difficult since I sat and faced Christmas in Croydon. They are in most part a haze of agony, self loathing and sheer desperation, punctuated with making strange (although oddly beneficial) decisions, being almost impossible to talk to and steadying calls from my solicitor. Without being false or shallow, she made it clear that she supported me all the way and was going to chase CICA all the way to the High Court and beyond if needs be.
It wasn't necessary. Confronted with the prospect of a case accusing them of indirect sex discrimination in their judgement since they had never made that judgement about a male rape victim, CICA backpedalled faster than a cartoon bank robber on a bike. A cheque for the full amount and a letter acknowledging that I was not in anyway responsible for my injury arrived smartish. I felt like I could breathe again.
Buoyed by the confidence the decision gave me and the money I had received, I began to rebuild my life, but at the back of my mind and my solicitor's mind was the fact that mine was not the only case CICA had ever assigned blame to a rape victim in. They do make it clear that in some cases you will not be rewarded for sustaining an injury because of drink fuelled behaviour, so if you were in a bar fight you started because of being pissed and got a fractured jaw, you shouldn't get as much as if you were an innocent bystander. I can see why having this option is useful to them in certain cases, but can only see it as blaming and shaming all the way when applied to rape cases. We were horrified to discover at least 14 other women had been slandered in this way and wanted to raise awareness of this rare, but damaging decision making, especially as the inference that my behaviour was inappropriate came from the police force who had already admitted they had been wrong in their handling of the case.
My solicitor got in touch with some press contacts and I was interviewed by June Kelly at the BBC and Rachel Williams, then of The Guardian. While sympathetic to my traumas, their eyes lit up journalistically when the details of the case came out. This was big news to them and after several days of poking and prodding the relevant bodies for information, the story made the front page of The Guardian in August 2008, quickly being picked up the major news networks including the BBC too. My alter ego, Helen, was interviewed by everyone that day from the Channel 4 News to the Evening Standard. Everywhere I looked the case was on the front pages and while that was a terrifying realisation when stepping into a Tube carriage, it also meant politicians and policy makers were talking about it.
While CICA refused to automatically review the other 14 cases, then Labour minister Bridget Prentice and the Justice Secretary spoke out to say how unhappy they were with the case, despite CICA's wriggling that it had just been a mistake. They talked good talk over the next day or so as the debate over drinking and rape raged in the media from the supportive editorial pages of the Guardian to the more judgemental opinions of Roger Graef and Peter Hitchens in the Mail to the blogosphere of Jezebel. I was scared to go near the internet or the newsagent for fear of hearing more about it (unfortunately I can't link to a Mail article where Peter Hitchens called me a 'vile faced drunken slut fit only for the gutter') as even the most supportive articles missed the point. I had my drink spiked, most likely a glass of water. They found evidence in my blood tests. I would have been raped even if I'd been stone cold sober and that's why this decision was even more heinously wrong than just a bit of casual shaming by CICA. Not only do they make bad decisions, they just make it up and make me the poster girl in the process.
Luckily Bridget Prentice got both these points and once the brouhaha had calmed down, she contacted me to let me know that the rules had been changed at CICA and that sexual injuries could no longer be influenced by the rule about inappropriate behaviour, meaning no one could be punished for having been drinking or taking drugs prior to a rape in the future. Not only that, but many of the other 14 women contacted CICA and their cases were reviewed, with some receiving the rest of their payout, but no apology for the slur on their reputations. Yet none of this would have happened without legal aid...
Without legal aid (and admittedly a beyond brilliant solicitor who was Times Legal Professional of the Week and nominated for Legal Aid Solicitor of the Year) I would never have received the money owed to me and used it to rebuild my life to try and become a functioning member of society again. 14 other women would have carried the burning pain of being blamed by the government for their own rape for the rest of their lives. Every single woman who had a G&T or a spliff the same day they were raped would have had to risk state mandated blame for that and essentially being fined for telling the truth or to forgo money that might help ease the problems caused by being the victim of a brutal crime. Everyone on a jury would have been entitled to think that women asked for it when they are raped after drinking because why should they have to feel differently when the government was allowed to actually write letters stating that?
I might be being idealistic about jury members and newspaper readers the length and breadth of the land not feeling the same way, but at least the law is now on the victims' side in a way it wasn't before Augsut 2008 and that takes away at least one small obstacle women face after being raped. And every single of one of those who don't have to worry about that obstacle were helped by legal aid. But my case would not be funded under the new proposals. No one would be helped if I'd tried to do this just three years later.
I started this to help myself, I don't pretend to be saying otherwise, but it ended up helping a lot of other people and if I wasn't already a fan of legal aid when I started, I was a devotee by the end. Legal aid gave me my life back and allowed me to rebuild my confidence while upholding the principles of justice that are the foundation of a civilised democratic society. I will be writing to my MP and to the Justice Minister to register my disapproval and show why it is so important to preserve legal aid. Please use your student fees, library closures and DLA cuts template letters and do the same...if you get made redundant, have an accidents, lose your home, have your benefits cut or get divorced in the next few years, you'll be glad you spent that money on a stamp...