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A new online women's group is establishing a 'housekeeping kitty' to provide access to justice for women who cannot afford lawyers. The recently launched Womens Club International plans to offer interest-free loans and discretionary grants as a core service for members if they need to go to the law but cannot afford it.
The new group is the brainchild of Julia Doveton Clark, who was made homeless after her divorce six years ago when she was unable to pay for the legal costs arising from the breakdown of her marriage. "I was doing the washing one day and I thought I had to turn my own experiences into something useful," she recalls. "There has to be a positive to come out of this negative and I suddenly had the idea of this housekeeping kitty. A woman with £5 in her pocket is vulnerable, but lots of women with £5 each makes them very strong." The ambition for the group is to build up a 'kitty' through membership subscriptions, which will provide the loans and grants as well as affordable housing for women. Membership costs £7.50 annually and members must be over 18.
Clark wants to attract 500,000 members, which would enable the club to have £1m in its legal fees fund. The club also plans to build a national directory of law firms "committed to providing women with effective legal representation at discounted fees". She says: "I believe there's a need for the legal profession to adopt a more caring and supportive stance towards women in vulnerable situations, like going through the trauma of a divorce." Clark describes the website as "a virtual coffee morning" where "women can chat, share personal experiences, recipes [and] make new friends".
Michael Mills, a solicitor at Isle of Wight firm The Family Law Practice, has agreed to be the fund's administrator. "The idea is that people will pay a small membership and some of that will go into the fund and then the club will look at applications from lawyers for worthy cases," he explains. "Legal aid is not as good as it might be for most people and so any initiative that will give people access to legal representation when they haven't got the means to pay for it seems to me to be a good thing."
Womens Club International is currently looking for female family law solicitors to join an out-of-hours helpline team and also for law firms to be included in its directory of solicitors.