Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne and attended a school where very few progressed to higher education. I was fortunate to have some very dedicated teachers who gave up extra time to help me study and encouraged me to apply to study an undergraduate law degree at University. Although I obtained five offers for law, Leeds was always my first choice due to its world-class facilities and research culture.
I thoroughly enjoyed my undergraduate years at the school and stayed on to study a Masters by Research. This allowed me to spend a whole year researching the area I’m passionate about: the ways in which inequality manifest in family courts. I graduated with a distinction and now continue my research through a PhD where I hope to make an impact by contributing research and evidence that can inform how new policies and laws are formulated.
What motivated you to undertake your PhD study and why did you choose the University of Leeds?
Not only does Leeds have one of the top law schools in the country but also a unique research culture, which is really important to me. There is no hierarchy at Leeds: the contributions of postgraduate research students are valued, and we have a say in how things are done within the school.
The newly established Centre for Law and Social Justice is an incredibly supportive environment for doctoral researchers. We have an abundance of opportunities to take on real responsibilities within the school and enhance our personal development. We can work with world-class academics on research projects, teach undergraduates and hold events and conferences.
Please tell us about your research topic and why you are passionate about this area of study?
My research addresses the recent reforms to legal aid funding in the family law courts. The budget for legal representatives in this area of law was largely removed by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, with very little evidence about what the implications of this would be. As a result, many of those who cannot afford to pay for their own barristers and solicitors are no longer able to go to court to obtain the judgements or orders that they require. This involves many vulnerable adults and children, and most often concern cases where there are disputes over custody, whether a parent should have contact with their child, rights to the family home, and domestic violence.
These are very serious cases in which lawyers are often required, because of the very serious implications of erroneous judgements. Many of these individuals end up with no option but to appear in court without a lawyer, as a litigant in person. It can be very difficult, particularly for those with mental health problems, disabilities, learning difficulties or particularly complex circumstances to stand up in court and present their arguments in the way expected by the court.
For my PhD, I will be interviewing different people about their experiences of self-representation in circumstances like these. In providing this evidence, I hope to contribute an understanding of the very serious consequences of cutting legal aid, and help to inform law reform that will help courts to accommodate people from various backgrounds, who all have very different needs and circumstances.
Do you take part in any activities outside of your study?
Through the Centre for Law and Social Justice I had many opportunities to make real impact in my area. Recently, I attended a government policy event with MPs, the judiciary, lawyers and charitable organisations to contribute my findings on the importance of legal aid to vulnerable family law litigants. I was the only academic present at the event, and so was able to offer a unique insight that would otherwise have been absent from the exchange of ideas about what the next move should be for law and policy reform.
What would you say to someone considering a research degree in the School?
I would recommend Leeds law school in a heartbeat. There is so much to get out of the law school if you are enthusiastic and passionate about your subject. The environment is supportive, but challenges you and pushes you beyond limits you ever believed possible. Going into higher education was a long-shot for me when I was applying to Leeds, and by the time I’m finished I’ll have been studying in the school for 7 years!
What are your plans once you have completed your PhD?
I hope to carry on with my research into family law and social inequalities beyond my PhD research into different areas that will help to inform future policies and statutes, so as to make a difference to how people experience law, and carry on working towards an ideal of equality and social justice.