23rd July 2013

I have just returned from Geneva where I attend the Enquiry of the UN Commission for the elimination of discrimination against women (CEDAW) to give evidence about access to justice, LASPO (the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act) and Legal Aid generally for women in the UK. Operating in such a setting is new for me a was a fascinating experience and I am grateful to the Law Society who provided sponsorship for me to go.

Every 4-5 years all Governments who sign CEDAW have to report back on progress made. At the same time interested NGO’s and other groups are invited to make their comments on progress via a Shadow Report so in effect any National Government can be called to account.

I have spent the last two years as a member of the CEDAW shadow report writing group, covering the areas of access to justice and women, family and the Law.

The timing of the enquiry couldn’t have been better, given the changes to Legal Aid and Access to Justice which on were introduced on 1st April this year.

Much of the time was taken up with lobbying those who are interested in the law, women’s human rights, gender and the law, family law, children’s rights and family law, etc. As most of the Commissioners are Jurists, these areas are of great interest to them. I had taken some postcards which highlighted for lobbying purposes some of our concerns – see link

The UK Enquiry took place over 3 days from the 15th July 2013 – 17th July 2013 inclusive but I used the time before to sit in on sessions relating to other countries to see how things worked.

Monday 15th July 2013:- CEDAW Committee NGO’s Oral Presentation

This was a very intensive session when the UK NGO’s were examined by the CEDAW Commissioners. Legal aid and access to justice had been placed at the core of the UK NGO’s delegations concerns and so became the focus for the Commissioners Enquiries.

As a consequence I received a many questions from the Commissioners was able to talk about how recent changes in the UK are contrary to Article 16 of CEDAW (equality in a family) and Article 15 which deals with equality before the law. I have attached the answers to the different questions I was asked and felt that I got a great deal of information across to the Commissioners, both in written submissions and in oral evidence.

Tuesday 16th July 2013:- Lunchtime Briefing and Evening Event

Each Member State’s NGO’s (I was in with this group) are given the opportunity to speak with the country Rapporteur and other members of the State in question’s “task force.” Our lunchtime briefing was exceptionally well attended and on the advice of more seasoned lobbyists, I had copies of the summary document dealing with the areas relating to legal aid in the main Shadow Report.

I was able to speak twice and answer questions specifically on the issues of legal aid, access to justice and women. I gave a short statement of evidence at the end of this lunchtime briefing, which was attended about 20 of the Commissioners, including the Chair. Apparently this is a very high attendance for a lunchtime briefing. It suggests that they had really picked up on the issues. Afterwards I was able to speak privately with Madame Haider the Commissioner from the Lebanon, and also with Madam Patten, both of whom asked for further information about the legal aid situation. Madame Haider went as far as to say that the information that we had provided was extremely useful to them in their deliberations about the UK and access to justice. She said, “This information is extremely helpful ammunition for when we question them.” Madam Patten also wanted more information about equality before the law and was particularly interested in the residence test over and above the general concerns that she had about access to justice.

Wednesday 17th July 2013:- The Enquiry and Examination into the Member State (UK Government)

The government delegation was headed up by Helene Reardon-Bond There were numerous Government attendees in Geneva and others took part from the UK by video link.

There had been particularly wonderful art exhibition concerning women and access to justice (see photographs of what that they prepared) They were done by young art students in London and they were delighted when they were invited by the Committee to exhibit them in the members chambers for the UK Enquiry. Very sadly the UK Government refused to start until they were removed.

The opening statement from the Government was read by Helene Reardon-Bond. She said that the Government was incredibly committed to the ideals of CEDAW and to working in partnership with all of the NGO’s. This was greeted with incredulity by the NGO sections.

The legal aid questions were put to Andrew Tucker of the MOJ who was appearing by video link. Andrew appeared to be on the defensive when asked about the residence test and gave a rather weak answer stating that it was the Government’s intention not to pay out of public funds for people who did not satisfy the requirement of the residence test and when pressed by Madame Kaddari he agreed that his would include victims of honour violence, domestic violence and forced marriage as well as parents having their children removed from their care.

He was questioned repeatedly about legal aid for victims of domestic abuse, why they had to pay for their legal aid, and why they had to provide proof to a very high threshold which was difficult for many to achieve. Again he was defensive and stated rather lamely that “not all types of evidence have to be paid for.” It was put to him that that was no help to the women whose only type of producible evidence had to be paid for to which he didn’t really respond.

Various Members of the UK delegation said that whereas they really wanted to comply with CEDAW, the UK Government couldn’t afford equality which went down like a lead balloon.

Following an exhausting day of evidence and provision of revised written submissions, we got together as a delegation (Shadow Report writers) to produce our recommendations. These have now gone to the Commissioners. Legal aid/Access to justice was stated to be the first of our three key issues that we asked the Commissioners to emphasise in their report.

The Commissioners will report in 4 weeks time and at that stage we will see what is being demanded of the Government. How we use this will be dependant on what the recommendations say (not surprisingly) and I will be reporting back at that stage. Hopefully we will get some significant requirements for reform of LASPO that we can take forward.