“A one woman powerhouse in family law,” is how Newcastle solicitor Cris McCurley was described as she went up to collect the much coveted prize of lawyer of the year at a glitzy London ceremony.
Yet that’s only one of her two impressive accomplishments. Lately she’s been a leading campaigner in the fight against Government cut-backs to legal aid which has seen her called to give evidence at the United Nations. She’s also ruffled a few feathers on the way.
She’s been called hysterical and self-interested live on radio and had many a heated debate with senior figures from the Ministry of Justice, but this only makes Cris, who is a partner at the Ben Hoare Bell law practice on Shields Road in Byker, more determined.
Alongside a group of experts, Cris was asked by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to write two chapters on British legal aid cuts and access to justice. She then had to go and give evidence in person and more than a year on from the call to Geneva, she is waiting for the Government’s response.
“We’ve said that no woman should have to pay to get legal aid and that all women who are victims of abuse have access to legal aid,” said Cris, who lives with her family in Newcastle.
New Government rules have meant a raft of drastic changes to the types of cases people can expect the state to help them with, when they can’t afford to pay legal fees themselves.
Debt and welfare advice, many immigration cases and all private family law, unless it’s possible to prove domestic violence, have all seen legal aid funds evaporate and people have been forced to represent themselves.
One of the most difficult reforms is that a victim of abuse must now produce evidence to qualify for legal aid.
That could be through a copy of an unspent criminal conviction for domestic violence, a restraining order, evidence from a doctor that she has been treated for injuries sustained as a result of domestic violence, or evidence that she has spent time in a women’s refuge.
However, much of the evidence is required to be from within the last two years, and in many cases the victim must pay, with a copy of the police conviction report costing £60 and a doctors letter £50.
Not only does this undermine the very fabric of the justice system in Cris’ eyes by making a woman’s ability to pay a factor in securing a fair trial, but it also completely fails to understand the nature of domestic abuse which often affects the most vulnerable, is under reported and can take women years to pluck up the courage to speak out.
It’s been reported that at least two in five victims of domestic violence cannot get legal aid because of the Government’s restrictions on access and around 50% aren’t able to come up with any tangible proof.
A woman with a legal aid funded solicitor is also better able to present themselves in the courtroom. She might not know for example she can give evidence from behind a screen if she feels intimidated.
Cris said: “The critical one for me is the right to a fair trial. People have got to have the right to a fair trial in order, but in order to have de facto fairness, we have got to think can the woman represent herself. How can she be put at ease?
“If she’s terrified of him and can’t face him in court she might need to give evidence behind a screen. What measures can we put in place to level the playing field?”
As a human rights and head of international family law at Ben Hoare Bell, which was this year named National Legal Aid firm of the year, Cris also works on international child abduction cases, forced marriages and victims of abuse.
In the last few months she’s been involved in a tricky case involving a Kuwaiti man from the North East who had been secretly planning on taking his children back to his home country.
His English wife had handed over the three children to him as part of their pre-arranged contact time. It was only when their 11-year-old son realised that he was boarding a plane to Dubai, and not one to Edinburgh where he’d been promised a trip to the zoo that the man was stopped by airport staff and he was arrested for child abduction.
Cris said in that case, worryingly a “port alert” which is issued by police to border authorities with information on someone who has the potential to try and take their child out of the country had failed.
She said: “The very idea that those children might have gone after all the of the pain that they might have gone through and all the court orders that had been made. It was unthinkable.”
Other scenarios include instances of when a mother has had sole care of her child since birth, and then she gets a court order from her partner who has managed to claim rights for access and suddenly they’re taken away.
“It’s a terribly dramatic thing when a parent has made a dishonest application and the children are ferried to the other parent,” said Cris.
The legal wranglings over forced marriage is another regular part of her work, as is a woman leaving her husband when she gets wind that an arranged marriage for one of their children may be on the horizon.
In 2008 research carried out in Bradford schools found that every summer mid-teen girls were going missing after a long extended time away with family, and failing to reappear in September for school as expected.
Cris doesn’t doubt that exactly the same thing happens in the North East of England.
“The Bradford girls missing from the school rolls was a shock for the Government that they did all sorts of things to attempt to resolve the situation. I’m sure that it is the same in the North East,” she said.
“I’ve been working on these issues for 25 years. Everybody says that it’s a very conservative area when it comes to the values of the Asian communitiy, but it’s also an African and Middle Eastern issue. There’s disbelief from professionals sometimes when they say ‘I’ve met the parent and they are lovely’ and they can’t belive they would hurt their child. It’s not about not loving the child, it’s about conflict between what one individual wants to do and what the other person wants. There’s the sense that it’s been done for centuries. I wouldn’t want to be critical about anybody’s beliefs. My job is when someone comes and say to me ‘my human rights are being breached’.”
Cris travels around the world on her international cases, although she was recently turned down for a Visa for her first ever visit to Pakistan, which she presumes is because of her work.
Her desk is fantastically messy and tucked behind a sea of files and ringbinders, photographs of Asian landscapes and children, and an Urdu dictionary.
She said she can understand more than she can speak, but even her rudimentary understanding is a great help in communicating with clients.
Her life now sounds a world away from her start in a coal-mining community in Fife, Scotland.
Her dad was a miner and her mum a nurse, and later the family moved to Pontefract in West Yorkshire where her dad got a job in a technical college.
She started out practicing law in the mid 1980s after completing her Law Society finals in Newcastle and was hugely inspired by the women running a project on domestic violence injunctions, the method by which women fearing further abuse can get civil protection.
“I was working on a project about how effective domestic violence injunctions are and I met a really amazing group of fiesty Asian women who were doing domestic violence work in the region. That was in 1987 and I still work with the same group of women now. I was really blown away by their passion for their work.
“They were a group of women who started a centre for BME women, that is holistic in its approach. Some of them are in their sixties and are still as passionate as they ever were and for someone like me at the time who knew nothing about anything...they just blew me away.”
That group of women includes her good friend Umme Imam, executive director of The Angelou Centre based in Arthur’s Hill, Newcastle which is one of the few surviving black-led women’s projects in the North East, and is run by women for women.
Does Cris warrant that live radio swipe of being purely self-interested? After all a lawyer who deals with mainly legal aid cases could see a drop in income to their business.
But why would someone dedicate 25 years of their life to the most harrowing of British cases or harm, pain, abuse and violence if they were only interested in making money. As a lawyer, there’s an abundance of easier ways to do that.
The next twelve months will be hugely important for Cris and her colleagues’ fight to see reforms within the Ministry of Justice and to see the response to the UN report, but this Christmas, Newcastle should be extremely proud that it has the Law Society’s ‘Lawyer of the Year’ in its midst.