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Pro-Bono Solicitor Network: Launching Tuesday 27th June 2023

Q&A with Rebecca Coltart

From Tuesday 27th June we will have a new Helpline open and operated by a network of Pro-Bono Solicitors. As we launch the helpline, we’ve spoken with Rebecca Coltart, one of the solicitors that has signed up to be involved. Below, she shares why she joined and what she feels are the critical issues in the civil legal system today, for both solicitors and survivors of gender-based violence.

You can find more information about our Pro-Bono Solicitor Network on our website.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background:

I’ve been qualified for nearly 3 years and I currently provide advice to clients on all aspects of family law. I studied at Robert Gordon University, graduating in 2016, and completed my Diploma at Dundee University in 2018. In my spare time I love reading, walking my dog and spending time with friends and family.

Why did you decide to take part in the Pro-Bono Solicitor Network?

I'm an empathetic individual who always wants to help those in need. I want to make a difference, even if that's helping one survivor who is going through a traumatic period in their life by providing support and guidance to help them in their time of need.

What was the process of being linked into the Solicitor Network?

I became involved after completing the SWRC's approved training for solicitors on domestic abuse and trauma informed practice. This involved learning about the dynamics of domestic abuse and how it impacts on survivors. Trauma informed practice is so important in ensuring clients are listened to and can fully understand how the legal process works. We learnt various techniques to ensure that clients are comfortable sharing their experiences with us, so we can provide them with the support and advice they need.

After the two-day course, my name was added to the SWRC's list of solicitors who have completed this training to help survivors find local solicitors in their area. It was after this that the SWRC reached out to their list of solicitors to see if any of us would be happy to volunteer with the Pro-Bono Helpline.

What interests you in providing advice to survivors with the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre?

The Scottish Women's Rights Centre provides an incredibly important service offering advice and guidance to survivors of gender-based violence and abuse. To work alongside such an important collaborative project in Scotland is an absolute privilege and I'll do my very best to assist in filling that gap where survivors struggle to access the legal justice system in their time of need.

Why do you think pro-bono work is important in the context of legal support for survivors of gender-based violence and abuse?

I can imagine survivors will struggle to know where to even begin with seeking legal support - and reaching out directly to a solicitor is a daunting step for anyone. By offering pro-bono advice and support, this can help to break down any barriers that survivors may face when trying to access justice and support.

What are some other barriers you feel survivors face in the civil legal process?

I think a huge barrier is the lack of interaction between the civil system and criminal system. I find a lot of clients report how often the criminal system lets them down right at the very point they need help and protection the most, when reporting incidents to the police. Clients often say that nothing seems to come from reporting. There can be a sense of helplessness that comes with that where survivors are trying to seek protections through the criminal system yet due to various reasons - for example, lack of resources or lack of evidence - the perpetrator seems to continue to get away with their behaviour. You often hear clients say that the police told them to contact a solicitor to seek civil remedies which can then lead to criminal consequences for abusers; however, this can take time and great expense to the survivor to go through this route.

This also applies to court actions surrounding child contact where there has been alleged abuse and the perpetrator is seeking contact with children. There appears to be a lack of understanding of how provisions for domestic abuse and child contact in a civil context reflects in criminal practice and vice versa. The Scottish Government recently funded a research project looking at this very problem and a report, 'Domestic Abuse and Child Contact: The Interface Between Criminal and Civil Proceedings', was published in December 2022.

How do you feel about the current legal aid crisis? Does this impact your choice to be a part of the Pro-Bono Solicitor Network?

I have serious concerns around the legal aid crisis. I know that trying to find a solicitor who provides legal aid work in today's climate is extremely hard for survivors. I don't undertake legal aid work myself so through volunteering with the network, I hope I can provide guidance to survivors on how to access legal support and any other support they may desperately need.

What improvements do you think could be made to the civil justice system to ensure access to justice for survivors of gender-based violence?

Survivors need to be able to access support outwith their solicitor and so we need to prioritise funding and resources to reduce waiting lists for services like Women's Aid. Comprehensive education from solicitors, the police and even the courts to ensure that everyone is fully understanding of the domestic abuse legislation in Scotland, which is designed to protect survivors, is essential.

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