Victoria Marks explains how – with the help of a fairy godmother – she and her colleagues went from redundancy to founding the award-winning, ground-breaking Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit
In summer 2016, the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit, just three years’ old, won a Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year award. I have been asked to reflect on what led us on our unconventional journey to this point.
The year 2012 saw the announcement of civil legal aid cuts; cuts which were to devastate the sector following the introduction of LASPO in April 2013. It was against this background that I along with four colleagues at North Kensington Law Centre were planning to set up a legal charity to assist victims of trafficking. We had no funds, no legal aid contract and no prospect of raising any kind of start-up loan. We all faced financial uncertainty as the law centre was planning a raft of redundancies. We foresaw the inevitable break-up of our team, which would result in the loss of expertise that had been developed across the immigration and employment departments over the previous six years. With employment law removed from scope for legal aid, it was clear that there would little opportunity for others to capitalise on the work that we had done in developing the law for victims to recover compensation from their traffickers. So, we set to work…
Our first priority was money. We needed to raise funds, and quickly. My colleague, Emmy and I spent our spare time throughout the year painstakingly drafting funding applications, and in the process honing our vision for the new organisation. We saw a need for an organisation which would provide a legal service dedicated to victims of trafficking which worked holistically across different disciplines to coordinate legal challenges to a client’s advantage. With trafficking law in its infancy, we also saw the imperative for strategic litigation which would shape the law to better protect victims. We wanted to forge a model that was different to many specialising in social welfare law: it had to be sustainable, so not overly dependent on legal aid; offer high-quality representation, so staff must be experienced; and focus on developing specialist expertise on a particular issue, defined by this and not geographical location.
Our second priority was a legal aid contract. Our clients would depend on legal aid to access justice, and so must we. We tendered for a contract which would start in April 2013, but with impending redundancies, this was not soon enough. We needed help. Our fairy godmother came in the form of Ruth Hayes, director of Islington Law Centre. Ruth agreed to take us in as part of the law centre until we could operate independently.
With Islington’s backing we could give funders greater confidence in the project and our fundraising efforts started to pay off. Even so, we still had a timing gap to fill. By mid-July my four colleagues had been made redundant. Islington Law Centre could offer us premises on the Hornsey Road, but not until November. In the meantime, we had nowhere to go and many clients had had their cases shut and were struggling to find alternative representation. We scrabbled around for help. This time, the Free Representation Unit stepped in, taking over 25 clients with live cases in the employment tribunal and Court of Appeal. Colleagues Jamila and Juliette moved their office to FRU and carried on undeterred.
In these final months, four of us were jobless, with mortgages to pay. Our passion and resolve was tested then as it was to be several times over the three years. We clung on, planning for the future.
We moved in to 232 Hornsey Road on 14 November 2012. By this time, we had raised funds to cover some but not all of our first year. We had five desks, five lawyers and a ready supply of clients, which came from an established network of referral agencies. We also had a name, which we largely owe to Paul Yates from Freshfields, who’s advice we took to heart: that our name should tell people what we do.
And so we were off. To say the initial months were hard work would be an understatement. By April 2013, we had incorporated as a charity, had four trustees, a legal aid contract, and had set up financial and administrative systems to ensure SQM compliance. We had also developed many things one takes for granted in a more established practice, such as bookkeeping, payroll and case management systems, a brand, a website and IT systems for email and document storage.
There were many things that we had not been prepared for, but the greatest of these was probably how much the legal aid regime would change with the introduction of LASPO. Despite the government’s rhetoric around combatting trafficking, and the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, we continue to face a daily struggle in obtaining legal aid for our clients.
The ATLEU vision
In 2014 the case of Hounga v Allen, in which ATLEU acted for Ms Hounga, was heard by the Supreme Court. This case saw the Court disapply long established law on illegality in order to act in accordance with the UK’s international obligations to victims of trafficking. The greatest irony of this case perhaps being that the Legal Aid Agency funded the traffickers and not the victim. The LAA’s approach is without doubt out of step with public policy and contrary to the national interest: if victims cannot access justice to hold traffickers to account then traffickers will continue to act with impunity.
We strive to live up to our vision to be an organisation which clarifies and extends the legal protections for victims of slavery and trafficking, despite the increasingly hostile public and political attitudes to migrants. Among our achievements is obtaining a Declaration that the State Immunity Act is incompatible under the Human Rights Act, challenging the abuse of diplomatic immunity, bringing the first ever successful claim for caste discrimination, and challenging the government’s inadequate provision of legal aid for victims of trafficking. As well as winning a LALY in 2016, we were given an award for our Outstanding Contribution to the Fight Against Modern Slavery at the Anti-Slavery Day Awards.
Since its inception, ATLEU has assisted over 200 victims. It has grown from a team of five to a team of eight and is hoping to take on a trainee. In addition to legal representation, ATLEU provides training and a telephone advice line to support agencies and practitioners. Such are the difficulties in obtaining legal aid, the organisation continues to depend heavily on charitable grants and donations alongside legal aid revenue.
There have been numerous set-backs and challenges along the way, but we have also been extremely fortunate. Our story is one which has been shaped by many others. We have been the beneficiaries of incredible generosity, support and encouragement: Ruth Hayes, who inspired us and gave us a home; Yasmin Waljee, from Hogan Lovells, who introduced us to Ruth and others; and our friends and family, many of whom have contributed their skills and time.
To those thinking of starting up on their own I can offer the following advice:
- Don’t do it alone – it is hard and you will need the skills of others on your journey. Work as a team.
- Ask for help. We did (and still do) and the amazing thing is how often people say yes.
- Work in partnership, not in competition. We really are all in this together.
My journey has been both a personal and professional one. It is the story of four women with whom I have worked side by side for over seven years. We sometimes disagree but have found a way to manage and grow an organisation together by respecting and relying on each others’ strengths. I thank Clara Connolly, for making us bold; Juliette Nash, who kept our heads in a crisis (of which there were many); Emmy Gibbs, for making us smart; and Jamila Duncan-Bosu, for her boundless energy that keeps us all going. To them I owe a debt of gratitude.