“It was a lady who has suffered serious abuse at hands of her now ex-husband,” recalls Sam Cottman.

“I went to Wales to represent her, but she was too frightened to come to court. The judge said unless she attended in person he would discharge the order – I asked what grounds he would find acceptable for non-attendance and he said (a) that she had given birth or (b) that she had been arrested.”

Cottman takes a breath.

“So they both came to court, the husband and wife. And she had a panic attack the second she saw him.”

“The amount of trauma she had to endure – just to get into the court room – is a real example of the difference of having lawyers and why DARA is important,” he finishes. “Because without DARA most people in her situation give up, or have to advocate for themselves in court against an abusive partner.”

Sam Cottman

Cottman, the head of pro bono at Travers Smith, is recalling just one of the cases that DARA – the Domestic Abuse Response Alliance – has taken on since its foundation. Now numbering 10 firms, it is the largest pro bono project ever assembled to provide end-to-end representation and, crucially, advocacy support for survivors seeking protective orders against their abusers.

It is vital work. In England and Wales, a woman is assaulted in her home every six seconds. Every week, three women are killed by a current or former partner and another three die by suicide due to domestic abuse. For many survivors, legal protection is beyond reach due to a lack of funding, a complex legal system or the prospect of facing their abuser alone in court without legal representation. Many survivors have no choice but to return to life-threatening relationships.

Travers Smith had been doing pro bono work in the area of domestic abuse since 2009, getting involved with an East London family law clinic in 2016, “but it was frustrating,” says Cottman. “People came in with a query and we would give two hours of advice and never see them again.” Once he took over as Travers’ pro bono head in 2020, Cottman put together a team to take those cases from start to finish.

That state of affairs continued for 18 months, but it coincided with the Covid-19 lockdowns, which  sparked an upsurge in domestic violence. The team at Travers realised more lawyers were needed to keep up. They spent hundreds of hours building the infrastructure to allow other firms to get involved. “The key bit is it needed to be independent so everyone could own it,” says Cottman, and we needed to be able to bring firms on board that had never done anything like this before.”

DARA would eventually launch in 2022 with seven firms: Travers Smith, Reed Smith, Hogan Lovells, Latham & Watkins, Slaughter and May, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and Debevoise & Plimpton. DLA Piper, Eversheds Sutherland and Akin Gump have all since joined.

“The power is in the collective,” says Cottman. There is now an “army” of lawyers – more than 300 in the first year alone – working on cases. The addition of DLA Piper and Eversheds Sutherland allow cities outside London to be covered. DARA has expanded to Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle, and such is its size that it now has capacity to take on cases outside of those core locations on a paperwork-only basis.

Priya Bansal

The whole operation sits not within Travers but LawWorks, who feed cases out from the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) and Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors (FLOWS) to the 10 participant firms on a cab-rank basis. Meanwhile family lawyer Jenny Beck KC and her firm Beck Fitzgerald provide the expert advice and oversight that is needed. An operational committee, with representatives from each firm, LawWorks and Beck Fitzgerald, meets monthly to share knowledge and best practice, and to resolve challenges that arise.

DARA has taken on 130 cases since launching. The majority of clients are women, though it is open to all. Clients vary in profile; “We’ve had students, teachers, retail workers, junior doctors,” says associate Priya Bansal. “We thought they would be the stereotypical romantic relationship breakdown scenario, but quite a lot of them are actually intra-family disputes involving siblings or a parent and child. The important thing about the triage process is that they are all unable to access legal aid.”

If it all sounds like a smooth operation, it takes effort to keep it that way. “One of the things that makes it all work is that everyone is on board, they are getting a decent case load and being listened to,” says Cottman. “We are very conscious of that: the case flow needs to be right – 20 firms doing case a year will all lose interest. The coming months will reveal whether we can cope with the increased case flow we are currently experiencing or whether we need to build out. If we hit year three and every member firm is taking on three or four cases a week, then we will look at increasing our size, but it needs be manageable.”

From an industry-wide perspective, DARA is encouraging an entirely new group within the legal profession to step into a widening gap between legal aid and private representation for survivors of domestic abuse. Alongside this, it is also collating crucial data in relation to domestic abuse proceedings that can be used not only to improve and refine the service that DARA provides, but also to inform policy. Its findings to date are already shining a light on the latest issues in the domestic abuse arena, including representing clients with learning difficulties; navigating abusive partners with mental health issues, tackling revenge porn and fighting tech abuse.

From a personal perspective, it takes courage for survivors of domestic abuse to confront their abuser in Court. To have an advocate acting on their behalf is life-changing.