CLE conference keynote 1: Amerdeep Somal (PM)

by Paul Maharg on 19/06/2015

First of three keynotes, this one by Amerdeep Somal, Nottingham Trent Alumna of the Year.  Amerdeep has experience of working for the Ombudsman Service, has worked for the Independent Police Complaints Commission, a prosecutor in the CPS, and as an Immigration Judge (First Tier tribunal).  She started with reference to her own legal education, at NTU, then Trent Poly, from a state comprehensive school, noting that her own applications to City law firms didn’t even get an acknowledgement.

She faced obstacles, and race and gender was part of that; but her legal education  served her well, though her career took her into public not private practice.  Women and domestic violence was a particular concern for her.  Legal education was essential to her practice as a judge, in an area of law that, she said, alters by the hour (clearly legal research is critical).  Access to justice is an enabler, to her, giving access to rights that they wouldn’t otherwise have, particularly if poor or otherwise without the skills and capital to pursue those rights.  Pro bono — not enough lawyers doing this, or at the right levels of practice expertise, though the scale of unpaid work done by lawyers is impressive.  But unpaid work should not be the default position in a society that is relatively wealthy, and which makes such play with the Magna Carta principles.

At questions, Jenny Holloway asked what might be done to help unrepresented litigants.  Amardeep replied that the hand-holding in court was essential, but when litigants left the court system, there was very little support, and at a time when there are often harrowing circumstances, particularly in domestic abuse cases.  She cited a case she had been involved in that illustrated this, while acknowledging that the legal profession may not be the best profession to do this, and that there needed to be inter-professional work done on this.  Liz Curran cited international examples of support for domestic abuse clients, both before and after court process, which in itself was often alienating, with court staff treating such clients as a ‘problem’.  Sally Hughes cited Southall Black Sisters as an example of good practice.  Her concern about pro bono lay with the well-meaning professional — could this really support the need available?  Amerdeep agreed — it was a stopgap, a good start, but by no means the full solution.  There was a further question about the time costs of self-representative litigants — should they be given advice about court process beforehand?  Amerdeep agreed, noting how such litigants found it difficult to focus on the legal issues at stake, amongst other problems they had, though some litigants were very good at this.  And, critically, lawyers were required in cases of injustice such as the Guildford Four, in taking forward complex cases and making complex legal arguments.

A keynote that stimulated a range of questions and comments – very good start to the conference.

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