Helping victims of domestic abuse when they have nowhere left to turn in Barking and Dagenham
PUBLISHED: 07:00 13 January 2020
Barking and Dagenham has the highest rate of domestic abuse in London. In the 12 months up to September 2019 there were almost 3,000 domestic abuse offences according to data from the mayor of London - more than 14 for every 1,000 people.
The council is trying to address the root of this with a commission, but a new programme is trying to help people who have already become victims.
DV Flag East started on June 1, 2019. Expected to last for at least three years, its purpose is to give free legal advice to any victim of domestic abuse in the borough and the surrounding areas.
The programme also aims to protect from government cuts to free legal aid. Changes to the law in 2013 meant many can't access the legal system or the solutions judges are supposed to be able to provide.
Cuts left around 40 per cent of women unable to access advice and representation in family law, according to a 2015 Rights of Women report.
Fiona Taylor, the council's director of law, said it was seeing the issue in child care proceedings: "It was always something that was prevalent.
"We were aware of the legal aid cuts and how they're impacting women when they're seeking legal advice.
"It was really difficult for people to get legal advice because if you don't qualify for legal aid, it's very difficult for local solicitors to offer that."
DV Flag East includes council and private practice lawyers often working pro bono and in their free time to help victims. They're partnering with lawyers at Citizens Advice. After a victim is referred to them or the victim gets in touch, someone gets back to them in 24 hours.
Solicitors handling the case give them advice and support, and look at their legal options.
"The solicitors are doing it because they want to change people's lives," said Councillor Maureen Worby, lead for social care and health integration.
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"Wherever a woman comes into the system, she gets help or a referral.
"We have women who make that move to come forward, then it's our duty to make sure we support her. It's a big enough move to go and ask for that help in the first place."
In the seven months since launching, DV Flag East helped 65 people with legal support, according to Hazel North-Stephens, the council's domestic abuse commissioning manager.
Lisarta Sahani is a trainee solicitor at the firm Alexander Ross working in DV Flag East.
"We're able to offer clients legal advice, take them to court, get them what they require," she said.
"Clients who receive support are more likely to go ahead with getting the order."
The prospect of going to court is daunting for a lot of domestic abuse victims.
"We get on that phone," she added. "We ascertain what legal advice they need and take it from there. I just wish more women and victims of violence come forward so we can help them through the journey of getting protection from court."
An example of that protection is a non-molestation order, which can ban abusers from coming near a victim or their home, among other things.
Much of the money for DV Flag East comes from the council letting out its legal team to other local authorities. Though Ms Taylor wouldn't say how much that practice has netted the authority since it started in 2012, she said £50,000 from it has gone to DV Flag East, the majority of it's funding.
But that money can't stop domestic violence from happening.
Cllr Worby describes herself as a realist, she wants to have the best support possible for victims: "We're never going to get rid of domestic violence, but what I want is a community that's fully aware [of it] and has a full range of support there."
Anyone experiencing domestic abuse in Barking and Dagenham can contact DV Flag East on 020 8507 5994 or by emailing email@example.com. More information can be found at dvflageast.org.uk.
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