CLE15: McKenzie Friends (PH)

by Pamela Henderson on 21/06/2015

My last live blog for today!

Full title:  Training Law Students to be McKenzie Friends for Victims of Domestic Abuse.

Presented by:  Veronica Lachkovic who teaches on the Bar Professional Training Course for aspiring barristers at City Law School.

Ronnie spoke to us about the invaluable work she has been doing, supporting and training students to become McKenzie Friends for individuals who may otherwise have little or no access to the processes of justice.  She took us through the work of the National Centre for Domestic Violence, which provides a free service that helps people to get the protection they need from the civil courts.

Ronnie is offering her students a clinical experience in specific context of domestic abuse.  Students are trained to help victims of domestic abuse to get their story into the proper legal form and make necessary applications to the court e.g. for an injunction.  This is particularly important as it is difficult to get legal aid for this urgent process and many victims will not qualify under the means testing criteria.  The evidence criteria may also be difficult to satisfy if there is no ongoing or completed criminal court process, or other agency involvement.  Even where an individual may have the means to pay a solicitor for advice, they may not be able to get someone to act for them urgently.

Bringing it closer to home, Ronnie had researched the various voluntary agencies in and around Nottingham who support the victims of domestic abuse, but while all of them provided crucial support in different ways, such as securing emergency accommodation for individuals forced to flee their homes, only one of them was able to offer support with the urgent aspects of the legal process.

Students acting as McKenzie Friends can interview clients and perform tasks that for them. with their burgeoning legal experience, may be relatively simple, but which are daunting and perhaps unachievable for vulnerable litigants in person.  For example, they may be able to draft a clear, accurate and persuasive witness statement.  It can be challenging to articulate abuse that is a slow ‘drip, drip, drip’ of little things happening over a period of time, rather than a single, but major, incident. Having trained assistance in telling the story effectively will not only help to secure a remedy for a victim of domestic abuse, but will do so in such a way as to enable the judge to form a judgment on whether to grant an injunction without having to ask endless questions that might prove distressing and (unintentionally) humiliating.

Students receive formal training and supervision to ensure that the students can act competently and effectively.  This goes beyond training in the relevant law, documentation and legal process, to encompass:

  • an understanding of the dynamics of abuse
  • the difficulty of leaving an abusive relationship
  • the victim’s likely state of mind: abuse is the norm
  • an awareness of the victim’s sense of shame, embarrassment, guilt and responsibility
  • appreciating that the victim may not actually recognise all the forms of abuse that he or she has suffered – abuse may be emotional, financial or physical, for example (apparently emotional or financial abuse often come before other forms of abuse)

Ronnie explained that it is important for the student to be actively aware of these points when interviewing the client e.g. by adapting their questionning style.  They may also need to clear other internal barriers, such as a reluctance to accept that the individual in front of them has been the victim of abuse, perhaps because of societal assumptions about the type of person who might be such a victim:  ‘but he’s a doctor and she’s a lawyer, so surely she would not be a victim of abuse’!

Students benefit too.  Most obviously, they enhance their research, conference, client communication, listening and writing skills.  Moreover, I would think it also helps them to develop their sense of professional identity, their personal ethical position and their values.

A key point to take away – as we have heard so often during the Conference, there is serious unmet legal need where legal educators and their students may be able to intervene positively and secure access to justice for those who would otherwise be left unsupported.

 

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