Meet the Young Solicitor Behind Belfast

25 April 2018

 

Laura Banks of Francis Hanna Solicitors, acts in a landmark case challenging ineligibility for bereavement benefits for cohabiting partners and their children. It is being heard on 30th April 2018 and will be the first case that the Supreme Court has ever heard in Belfast.

Tell us about you and your career to date.

I've been qualified for almost 7 years; specialised in employment law, litigation and Judicial Review. After completing my training in private practice, I took some time out volunteering in Citizens Advice. I thought it would be an opportunity to build on my skills and put them to good use. I planned to be there for a few of months but then took on a paid position as regional legal support officer and spent 5 years there. I was hooked; it opened up my eyes to injustices that I had no idea existed. I was blown away by the amount of expertise and dedication in the organisation and couldn't fathom the amount of need in society. I had been blind to the extent of poverty that exists in Northern Ireland and to the systemic discrimination of lower socio-economic groups. My desk was flooded with cases. I was astonished to discover the reality faced by so many people from being disallowed benefits despite having significant health needs to having no heating their homes due to a dispute with utility companies. I was surprised at the lengths people had to go to prove their eligibility for benefits and by the complex and legalistic nature of appealing decisions. It was a huge learning curve but one I thoroughly enjoyed. It was extremely rewarding to win a case and see what a difference I could make but it was disheartening to see that once you had won a case a new one lands on your desk. The problem was widespread and needed to be fixed at a higher level. The organisation did a lot of lobbying but I knew that what might take years of lobbying could be achieved by one single legal case. It got me thinking and I encouraged the organisation to allow to me to bring test cases directly from Citizens Advice.

It had always been my intention to return to private practice and I did so in 2017. I was delighted to find a firm whose ethos is social justice and allows me to keep working in areas I have developed a passion for.

Tell us about this case.

This is a case of a mum of 4 from Co Antrim who wasn’t married to her partner, the father of her 4 children, but they lived together for more than 23 years as a stable family unit. When her partner passed away from cancer she discovered that her children would lose out on tens of thousands of pounds in benefits. All because they were not married. Widowed parents allowance is available to children of married and civil partnered parents only and excludes children whose parents cohabited no matter the circumstances. Thousands of grieving children throughout the UK lose out every year on this basis, who might have lost their parents through an illness or accident. Given the trend of more people cohabiting it seemed that it was time this policy was challenged.

There is a gender dimension to the case too. Most of these policies are designed by men and disproportionately impact women and children. It seems symbolic that it's taken forward by a team of women, with Siobhan at the centre, who wanted to make a stand not only for her own children but for thousands of others.

How did the case come about?

While I was in Citizens Advice I met Denise Forde, an adviser in Citizens Advice Antrim who advises those affected by cancer on their benefit entitlement in partnership with MacMillan. She told me that due to cohabiting partners and their children being ineligible for bereavement benefits, she often had to have difficult conversations with her clients; explaining to them and their loved ones, often in the late stages of a terminal illness that the family would lose out on significant sums when they passed away on the sole basis that they had not been married.

She said this meant some of them had to take the difficult decision to arrange a marriage essentially on their death beds but for others this was not possible and they did not find out until it was too late. This seemed out of step with all other social security benefits such as child benefit, tax credits and housing benefit for which marriage is irrelevant. Denise felt strongly about the injustice of this and said she had been raising the issue for many years. I researched it and felt it was something that could be challenged through the courts however I was keen to get a second opinion. I approached various organisations but everyone I spoke to disagreed.

A chance encounter with a barrister, Laura McMahon, was pivotal to the case getting off the ground. She was a breath of fresh air in comparison to others I had spoken to. She found legal arguments to support us. It was obvious from our first meeting that she was a trailblazer having taken on the government in many significant cases.

So when Siobhan discovered that she and her children would not be eligible for these benefits following the death of her partner, she felt strongly and we took the case on her behalf.

How has the case progressed over the last 4 years?

We won the case at the High Court where the Judge found that the denial of Widowed Parents Allowance to Siobhan was not justified because parents were under an obligation to maintain their children regardless of marital status.

The government appealed this decision and succeeded before the Court of Appeal who determined that it was up to Parliament not the courts to decide who should be eligible.

We now have permission to appeal the case before the Supreme Court which will be heard on 30th April in Belfast.

It must have been a learning curve for a young solicitor. What will you take from the experience?

Honestly, I had no experience in bringing a Judicial Review prior to taking this on let alone Supreme Court practice and procedure! I've learnt a lot and been guided by excellent Counsel throughout. In addition to Laura we now have Frank O'Donoghue QC on board. It's been a wonderful opportunity to progress skills and learn from very experienced and knowledgeable practitioners. I now have the support and guidance of the partners in Francis Hanna which is invaluable.

The case has given me confidence to trust my instincts. It's easy especially as a young lawyer to think that more experienced people know more. At times that is true but it is also important to have confidence in yourself and your capabilities. My time in Citizens Advice also taught me that the most important issues and clients with most need do not necessarily present themselves in a solicitor's office. Vulnerable people don't always know their rights never mind how to enforce them. I'm keen to stay involved with the community and thankfully this is something that is encouraged within Francis Hanna.

You've been described by your colleagues as NI's Erin Brockovich. Do you agree?

I wouldn't go that far but I’ll take the compliment! The case came about because of a number of determined women; Denise Forde, Laura McMahon, myself, and most of all Siobhan McLaughlin. I found them inspiring and encouraging and call them all friends, having been on this journey together, starting off with a conversation in CAB Antrim and ending up in the highest court in the UK. I think that everyone can and should play a part in challenging injustices in our society and when you connect with like-minded people, it's amazing what can be achieved.