TrustLaw connects high-impact NGOs and social enterprises working to create social and environmental change with the best law firms and corporate legal teams to provide them with free legal assistance.
This project was nominated for ‘Pro Bono Initiative of the Year’ at the Lawyer Awards 2021.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data has shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.
Charities such as Women's Aid provide support to those experiencing abuse by facilitating refuge spaces across the country. This crucial support comes at a high cost to the survivors, who at times need to travel a distance to the various safe spaces located across the country. As reported by Women’s Aid, financial issues are regularly cited by survivors as a key barrier to travel as perpetrators can often take control of finances leaving limited access to cash. Launched by rail companies and Women’s Aid in 2020, the 'Rail to Refuge' programme tackles this issue, by providing free train travel for all survivors of domestic abuse to a place at a recognised refuge, breaking the financial dependency to escape.
To ensure the longevity and success of the scheme, Women's Aid approached TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono service, to ask for legal assistance on arrangements to formalise the nationwide scheme and related legal issues.
Through TrustLaw, Women’s Aid were connected with Milbank LLP who worked tirelessly to support Women’s Aid to formalise the “Rail to Refuge” scheme. The arrangements enable Women's Aid and rail companies to expand and develop the scheme going forward.
On average, four survivors a day have utilised the scheme to reach a safe refuge. People were transported safely to refuges as far from their abusive homes as possible, with some people enabled to travel as far as 540 miles. Almost two-thirds of the survivors who have used the rail to refuge scheme have stated that they would not have travelled if the cost of the journey had not otherwise been covered.
A pro bono lawyer with Millbank working on this project, Prudence Buckland, said, "It was a joy to work with Women's Aid to ensure the longevity and success of the 'Rail to Refuge' scheme”.
"The pro bono support we received was professional and swift, and enabled Women's Aid and the Rail Delivery Group to create clarity in our partnership and build on our working relationship to provide a unique and life-saving initiative”, said Jo Bridger, Procurement Coordinator, Women's Aid.
The scheme has since been endorsed by The Household of HRH The Prince of Wales and The Duchess or Cornwall, and the Secretary of State Transport, Grant Shapps.
“Financial abuse is one of the most powerful –though less commonly understood– methods of keeping a survivor trapped in an abusive relationship. The collaboration between Women’s Aid, Milbank and TrustLaw shows the transformational effect that pro bono legal assistance can have in tackling domestic abuse – making a difference in the lives of hundreds of survivors”, said Carolina Henriquez Schmitz, Director of TrustLaw.