Newcastle Lawyer of the year takes Government to task over legal aid at UN in Geneva

Newcastle family law expert Cris McCurley finds the Government is breaching international law on human rights over legal aid cut-backs

Lawyer Chris McCurley
Lawyer Chris McCurley

A human rights lawyer who took her fight to the United Nations claims the Government lied about cuts to legal aid.

Family law expert Cris McCurley, a partner at Newcastle solicitors Ben Hoare Bell, has spent the past twenty years tackling some of the country’s trickiest cases on child abduction, domestic abuse and forced marriage.

And following Government cut-backs to legal aid - which the Ministry of Justice continue to claim are legal - she was instrumental in a campaign to prove the Government’s actions are a breach of international law.

After giving evidence in Geneva in person, Cris - who was named the Law Society’s Lawyer of the Year for her work - has said the British Government must respond to the UN’s recommendations for change by next year.

Cris, and other colleagues who gave evidence to the organisation, want all victims of abuse to have access to legal aid as well as stopping the current system whereby women must pay to get letters from police and doctors that prove they have been abused.

Across the country cuts to legal aid have so far seen a dramatic rise in people representing themselves in the court room, as well as two high profile walkouts by barristers and solicitors.

Cris said: “One of the reasons why I’m so incensed about it is because there’s been so many lies told by the Government. Call me naive, but I find that shocking.

“One big lie is that nothing in their cuts contravenes international convention obligations.

“I gave evidence at the UN in July 2013 about the Government and the UN commissioner said in their report said that the international convention on human rights is being breached. They gave the Government two years to put that right.”

In April, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force, which meant legal aid has stopped for family cases where there is no proof of domestic violence, forced marriage and child abduction, immigration cases that do not involve asylum or detention, housing and debt matters unless they constitute an immediate risk to the home.

There is still funding for cases which meet the criteria of ‘exceptional circumstances’.

However CEDAW, the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, found the system is in breach of international conventions on human rights and they must report back in 2015.

“This Government seem absolutely intent on repealing the Human Rights Act of 1996,” said Cris. “It’s ideological.

“The Government is never shy about campaigning about human rights abuses in other countries, but this is what they are hiding in the UK.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson, said: “The Government is committed to protecting the most vulnerable and believes the legal aid scheme is compliant with our obligations under international law. We have had to make some difficult financial decisions, but we are safeguarding legal aid to ensure lawyers are there for cases which justify it and those people who really need them.”

The Government has said previously that all victims of domestic violence should get legal aid where it is needed to break free from an abusive relationships. They have also twice made changes to their policy for victims having to produce evidence, which they say has made it easier to claim legal aid.

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