I must admit that as a Yorkshire lass events here always affect me a little bit more than those elsewhere. So the flooding across the county over Christmas hit a chord. It’s been awful, with rain-sodden fields and angry rivers bursting their banks in towns and cities, sometimes in areas not used to such levels of flood water and therefore very unexpectedly. People have lost cherished possessions, been displaced, lost homes and businesses. They have no way of knowing how long it will last either. For some there are serious insurance problems too. All in all its been a bad Christmas for much of Yorkshire, and even though I live on high ground, away from a river, we had a two hour power cut on Boxing Day night when, along with 12,000 other people in the area, we had no choice but to sit in the dark and wait for the lights to come back on.
So on Twitter, I’m afraid, I have been particularly critical of Sir Philip Dilley, Chair of the Environment Agency who, it finally transpired when the truth came out, spent Christmas not all hands on deck as he had promised on his appointment to work seven days flat out, in stark contrast to his much criticised predecessor, but in fact he was at his home in Barbados not far from the fabulously luxurious Sandy Lane Hotel.
It infuriated me to read this, when I was reading at the same time about the failure of the flood barriers in York which when raised immediately flooded that beautiful cathedral city. Of course when it happened there was no sign of Sir Philip at all. He was in the Caribbean.
With a public appointment, a title and £100k per annum for his part-time job, I couldn’t help but wonder why he hadn’t immediately taken whatever flights were available to get himself to the North of England and take charge, as he had promised? It no longer matters I suppose.
I thought of Sir Philip’s decision to stay put in Barbados, and not be amongst the wrecked towns and cities of Northern England doing the best he could this week, as I sat talking to an elderly client in her late 60s who had travelled all the way from the South coast of England, taking a day off work as a waitress in a seaside cafe, in order to see me. She couldn’t really afford to see me at all;- that was pretty obvious, but she had come anyway, clutching a file of papers 25 years old. She explained that she hoped I might be able to help her, after the Sharland and Gohil cases had been heard in the Supreme Court.
The circumstances of her case are private obviously, but taking a look through the files I could immediately see that she had been given extremely poor advice by a legal aid lawyer, who was not a specialist in family law and she had received a divorce settlement that I’m sorry to say, seemed to have left her very short-changed indeed. She had never appealed the order of the local judge, saying she couldn’t afford to do so.
But what could I do 25 years later?
I took her through the law, and explained that to set aside an order after such a passage of time we would have to demonstrate some kind of fraud that would have affected the court order at the time. Could she do that? No she couldn’t;- but she was sure – really sure – her husband had not told the truth during the divorce. Since then she had struggled to bring up the children on her own with only child maintenance from her former husband. His lifestyle, meanwhile, was rather different: he had sold his business for millions only a few years later.
I exchanged glances with my assistant. There was little we could do without hard evidence. I suggested she find an accountant to help her with the papers she had brought along, then get back to me. I’d look at it again with a forensic report. But the truth was that she had no money and she couldn’t afford to instruct us or an accountant. She knew it and so did I.
I shook hands with her and she left the office with her file. I felt awful. I walked round the building, spoke to my assistant and we both agreed she was a really nice woman and had clearly got a raw deal. But a raw deal alone wasn’t going to be enough in a case like this.
And I asked myself what more could I do to help this client and how hard would it be to show some compassion?
My PA called the lady and asked her to come back before she got on the train back down south. We have a team of forensic accountants in the firm. It was a long shot but I suggested she leave the file with us and said we would comb through the case and see what if anything we could find. It’s not a process undertaken lightly. It’s hard work. But that’s what’s happening. Our forensic department has enthusiastically started taking a long hard look at her case and the client has gone back down south literally in tears that at last something is being done to help her, and it won’t cost her a penny.
In truth I have no idea at all whether we will be able to make a difference. Frankly, the odds are against it, but we will do our best. At least that lady will know that the person at the helm of a national firm with Yorkshire roots did do something to help her when she was feeling truly desperate. At times of sheer desperation comfort is required. Even if you personally you doubt that you will be able to make a difference. No one is ever too big or too important to forget that.
I am deeply grateful to all at Stowe Family Law, many of whom stayed to continue working after our offices closed at midday, to all our clients and all our readers, many thanks to all, and I wish everyone a very Happy New Year!
The client’s details have been altered to protect her identity.
Photo of York city centre by Richard Scott via Flickr