The Archers & Access to Lawyers in Rural Scotland

11 September 2016

The Archers' Helen Titchener has been found not guilty of attempting to murder her abusive husband Rob.

Millions of listeners tuned in this evening to the BBC Radio 4 soap as the fictional trial drew to a close with the jury's verdict.

The high-profile domestic abuse plot culminated in the first hour-long episode in show's 65-year history.

Back in April 2016 when Helen had just been arrested and was seeking legal representation Inksters were asked by LexisNexis for Lexis®PSL to give our views on issues surrounding access to legal services in rural areas given our network of offices in some of the remotest parts of rural Scotland. Brian Inkster (with the help of Sylvia MacLennan and Alistair Sloan) answered Alex Heshmaty's questions:-

How does the current plot of The Archers match the reality of access to legal services in rural communities?

Often small rural communities have a limited choice of local legal representation with available lawyers more likely to be general practitioners rather than specialists. Helen Titchener has been charged with attempted murder and given the seriousness of the charge specialist advice is likely to be sought well outwith Ambridge in any event. That would not be unusual and would I think be expected in most rural communities.

To what extent have rural communities been particularly affected by cuts to legal aid?

The money made available generally in Scotland for legal aid has fallen substantially in real terms over the past 20 years; even during the “good” economic times of the late 90s and early 2000s the legal aid budget escaped the benefits that many other budgets saw during that time. The target budget as set by the Scottish Government for all legal aid in Scotland, civil and criminal, is £126.4m. The Law Society of Scotland have recently stated that this represents, when inflation is taken into consideration, a real terms cut of 50% from what was being spent on legal aid in Scotland 20 years ago. 

The position in Scotland is not quite as bad as it is in England and Wales where a large number of areas of the civil law have been removed entirely (or almost entirely) from the scope of legal aid funding. Rural communities have suffered and while there continue to be firms that undertake Legal Aid work in rural communities there are fewer of them and this can cause difficulties in finding agents who have the capacity to undertake the work with no conflict of interest. In matrimonial matters where both parties require legal aid it can be difficult to find local representation for both parties and due to the funding arrangements, agents from outside of the locality might not take on work.

One major issue in this regard in Scotland is that if local agents are required for procedural matters in court they are likely to charge private client rates to the 'city' lawyer who will only recover at legal aid rates meaning it will actually cost the legal aid lawyer and they will be out of pocket for that part of the proceedings. This does not make legal aid work in rural areas attractive to lawyers not based there.

How has the legal market changed over the past five years in rural communities?

I have not noticed any particular changes in the legal market in the rural areas of Scotland that Inksters operate in (such as Shetland, Caithness and the Western Isles). There are still the same number of law firms doing the same type of work. We, at Inksters, are maybe shaking things up a little bit by opening offices in rural areas manned by specialists rather than general practitioners. The specialist will refer local work outwith their speciality to other solicitors in the Inksters network but remain as a local point of contact if required. They will also do work within their own specialism that may come to them from distant villages, towns or cities. We also take law to rural areas of Scotland with 'Pop-Up Law' and 'Flying Solicitors'.

What access to justice issues does Helen Titchener’s case raise in terms of access to advice and representation, both before and after the stabbing?

Helen Titchener’s case demonstrates the requirement for there to be access to legal advice and assistance for victims in abusive relationships.

Although there doesn’t seem to have been any financial concerns in Helen’s case that would have prevented her from getting advice (her family would no doubt have assisted with costs although her solicitor has indicated that from her own financial position she would be “entitled to some element of legal aid”); it is important that someone living in circumstances like those portrayed in Helen’s storyline is able to get access to good quality, affordable and independent legal advice in respect of separation and divorce. Victims of abusive relationships should be able to make informed decisions about getting out of relationships before they find themselves in a position where they are using lethal or potentially lethal force to defend themselves and the associated criminal proceedings that almost inevitably follow.

Before being driven to stab Rob she was not seeking legal advice in any way. She did speak to a confidential helpline though. Someone in her situation may, of course, have wanted to seek legal advice and perhaps been more comfortable with a face to face meeting. That will prove difficult in rural communities if there is a dearth of solicitors available with the speciality required. Telephone advice or travel to get advice may be the only options available. The effect of abuse on an individual means that they are often very frightened when they first seek advice. Solicitors within our firm do handle such cases and part of the satisfaction in dealing with such work is helping the client on their journey from vulnerable individual back to being confident and independent. Legal advice at a distance is not ideal for dealing with victims who are already traumatised and vulnerable. The practicalities of getting access to that advice by travelling or over the phone are very difficult where the individual’s movements are being controlled, as in the case of Helen. Or if they have limited access to funds and would therefore need Legal Aid.

It should also be noted that Helen no longer had control of her own money. Rob had slowly been taking control of that. He organised for Helen’s wages to be paid into a joint account, which was easy to do once they job shared. He was manipulative with money - e.g. forcing Helen to buy clothes from charity shops whilst at the same time lavishing her with expensive and unnecessary gifts. This was all part of his plan to deceive the wider world. Helen would not therefore have had easy access to money for legal advice unless she revealed her plight to her family.

After the stabbing legal representation was immediately offered to Helen at the police station but she declined to accept it. This would suggest that access to legal advice was not going to be a problem if organised via the local police force. Ultimately Helen obtained legal representation when her family appointed a lawyer, Dominic Farrell of Jefferson Crabtree Solicitors, to defend her. Mr Farrell was recommended by Usha Franks, a solicitor and partner at Jefferson Crabtree, who owns Blossom Hill Cottage where Helen, Rob and Henry stay.

As indicated previously due to the nature of the charges involved legal representation in cases such as this will invariably come from outside the rural community in question.

Jefferson Crabtree Solicitors are based in the nearby cathedral city of Felpersham. When the case was sent to the Crown Court for a plea and trial preparation hearing Mr Farrell advised Helen that it would be necessary to instruct a Barrister. Helen’s Aunt, Jill Archer, has a god daughter who is a criminal Barrister in Birmingham and who specialises in the very type of case affecting Helen. She has indicated a willingness to assist and her formal appointment is anticipated. In a Scottish context anyone in Helen’s position in any rural part of Scotland would have to seek representation from an Advocate (our equivalent of a Barrister) likely based in Edinburgh or Glasgow. This could be much further away from them geographically than Ambridge is to Birmingham.


Brian Inkster is the founder of Inksters which has offices in remote rural areas of Scotland: Inverness, Forfar, Portree (on the Isle of Skye), Wick (in Caithness—far north of mainland Scotland) and a visiting base in Lerwick (on Shetland—the furthest north group of islands in the UK), as well as its HQ in Glasgow.

This article was first published on Lexis®PSL Family on 15 April 2016. Click for a free trial of Lexis®PSL.

Image Credit: Ambridge Synthetics - The Plarchers

Bookmark and Share



blog comments powered by Disqus