CHARLOTTE HUGHES pays tribute to Caroline Sheridan whose activism helped pave the way for legal rights for women – but these rights are now in danger thanks to Tory cuts to legal aid
It was June 22 1836. That day at Westminster, the trial of a woman named Caroline Sheridan was taking place.
Crowds surrounded Westminster Hall and people had to be turned away. And her trial was published nationally.
But who was Caroline Sheridan, and why was she standing trial?
Sheridan was a very intelligent woman, and had published several books and poems.
She was forced into marriage at the age of 19 to a man 10 years her senior by her family to enable her to improve her social standing.
Her chosen husband was the Honourable George Norton, a lawyer, a man known for his controlling, temperamental and violent character. She was a victim of domestic violence, which was at times witnessed by others. He wanted a traditional, dutiful wife, not the intelligent, independent wife he married.
Norton accused Sheridan of “criminal conversation” with her friend Lord Melbourne, the prime minister at the time.
Sheridan stood trial for 12 hours, and was eventually found unanimously not guilty, however this did not improve her life.
Her husband was humiliated and angry and, as was his legal right, he then started the process of cutting her off financially.
To cut off a wife consisted of seizing all her possessions, letters, clothes, money and children.
Under the law of the time, a woman had no legal right to see or have contact with her children and there was no legislation to support this.
However, Sheridan used her intelligence and influence to her advantage. For the next 30 years, she campaigned for the rights of women everywhere.
Victorian England was a very male-dominated society, and for a woman to campaign like this wasn’t easy.
Sheridan helped to write the Infant Custody Act 1839. As a result of this, a woman, depending on circumstances, was able to gain custody of their children.
She also influenced the Matrimonial Causes (Divorce) Act in 1857, and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, which gave women a separate legal identity for the first time.
This then led to a series of further parliamentary Acts by other campaigners and politicians, and saw the rise of the Suffragette movement.
But what has changed? And are women still receiving adequate representation?
The legal aid system was created by the Legal Advice And Assistance Act 1949.
The creation of legal aid enabled a woman to divorce her husband, to challenge custody issues and to establish child contact with the absent parent.
On April 1 2013 the government introduced a series of cuts to the legal aid system, and all family law advice was removed.
People could no longer access legal aid funding for divorce, child contact or child residence issues.
Domestic violence victims now have to prove that they have been in an abusive relationship and to enable them to access legal aid, and they must provide medical evidence, a memorandum of conviction and a police disclosure.
As many victims of domestic violence do not report these crimes, this can be hard to do.
For a woman to be able to divorce her husband, she must now have the ability to pay for it. Many can’t afford this, so are left having to stay in a marriage that they are no longer happy with.
For a parent to challenge another parent for a child-related issue, they have to pay. This is a very expensive process — impossible for those on a low income or reliant on benefits.
There is the option for people to represent themselves in court, but this can seem very daunting and complicated. Often women are forced to confront in court an ex-partner who they could feel intimidated by.
This leaves a woman feeling unable to do anything. Many feel trapped. If a previous partner or husband takes their children with him, then how do they challenge them?
This results in many parents unable to have access to their children, which ultimately leads to the suffering and upset for both parent and child.
No longer do women, lone male parents and children have any ability to achieve the justice that they deserve. The laws might be written in legislation, but their ability to access justice is often blocked.
Instead of moving forward, providing more support, the government is taking support away.
A woman should have the ability to be represented in court without having to find an prohibitive amount of money to do so.
Women in this position must feel just as oppressed Sheridan did. We need to remember her story and remember how the rights she helped to win must still be fought for today.