How redundancy had a silver lining for ‘legal eagle’ Liz

In a crowded teen fiction market full of vampires, werewolves and dark romance, a lawyer-turned-author is hoping there’s room for a story about young people in care and a battle for human rights. She tells Steven Russell about fighting for the underdog

WISE frequent-travellers put the “dead time” to good use. Children’s rights lawyer Liz Fisher-Frank did in 2008, when she found herself taking the train from East Anglia to London one day a week or so. Writing initially in longhand and then with a small laptop computer, she began crafting a story about a teenager in care, more or less as a hobby. She was soon “tapping away like crazy, and in the very early hours of the morning and late at night. I got hooked. I had no idea it would be like that”.

The thrill of writing was a revelation. “I thought ‘Hmm . . . I can’t believe I’ve got to this age and only just discovered I enjoy it. Why am I so stupid!?’ But I’m so lucky it happened now. It could have happened when I was 65!

“I didn’t have a clue what the standard was like – and I still don’t, if I’m honest. I really enjoyed it, and once I finished that one I decided I’d write another.” The second was about child labour in India.

Writing proved the silver lining when, in the spring of last year, her job disappeared as the economy struggled. Liz did an MA in creative writing at the University of Essex “to see if anything was going to happen”. It has. On Monday, Human Rights Day, her debut offering had its official launch at The Law Society in London, having morphed over time from a “messy manuscript” into a slick-looking book.

It’s early days, but the debutante from the Essex-Suffolk border hopes Losing Agir will be the first instalment in a stream of new “legal thrillers” – getting a message across to teenagers without being stodgy or depressing.

“The law affects young people in many ways and fiction is a brilliant way to raise awareness of this,” explains Liz, who acknowledges a strong sense of social justice in her make-up.

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Drawing on a real-life incident, the story begins with the destruction of a village in Turkey before switching to the UK and finding inspiration in Liz’s experiences of representing young people in care and grappling with some of the issues they face.

Alice, a 15-year-old, meets Agir at her new foster home. He’s been smuggled into the country. She learns of his terrible story – the loss of his home and family in Turkey. Alice then faces shaking off the legacy of her own traumatic background and helping the 16-year-old Kurd escape a child-smuggling operation. The spark for the story came from a real incident early in 1993 in which a village was attacked by Turkish forces. Liz’s husband, Tony, a Colchester human rights lawyer, represented residents who took their quest for justice to Strasbourg. They claimed homes had been set on fire and that male villagers were forced to walk miles through snow, without adequate clothing and in many cases without shoes, before being imprisoned and often mistreated or tortured.

In 2004 the European Court of Human Rights upheld many of the allegations and villagers won compensation.

Liz had found it hard to forget the treatment of the villagers of Ormanici: “The way the families were pulled from their beds at gunpoint in the early hours of the morning and separated; the way the men were blindfolded and made to lie in the snow in the village square until, hours later, they were forced to walk for hours through the mountains to imprisonment.

“A little girl died in the attack and several men lost their feet to frostbite. Livestock were killed and the village huts burned.”

LIZ Fisher-Frank went to school at St Helena’s in Colchester, followed by A-levels in law, economics and accounting, along with a business element. She studied at Colchester Institute, though at the Clacton campus, which meant long bus journeys. “It used to take me longer to get to college every day than it did my dad to get to London! It was one of those journeys from hell, really.”

After a law degree at the University of Reading, Liz went to law school at Guildford and then did her “articles” – two years of training on the job – in London.

The desire to help people was clearly there even then, as Liz sought to do more work funded by the legal aid system, which supports those who otherwise cannot afford legal representation. So she got a job in Colchester and returned to Essex.

Her work was interesting – quite a bit of it involving mental health issues and some concerned with matters of negligence.

Liz developed something of a niche, representing young people in care or soon to leave it. Once they were in the system, she says, many had difficulties getting the legal advice they needed.

There were many issues that could blight lives: such as having a series of foster homes in a short period of time, which could de-stabilise their education, or being separated from brothers and sisters. There were also young people who should have been in care but weren’t getting what they needed because of spending squeezes and a lack of resources.

“It all comes down to finances, and there’s not enough money in the system,” she says. “There are a lot of professionals who work very hard, but there are problems. When there are redundancies, a lot of skills disappear – and the connections made disappear as well.”

From 2009 to 2011, Liz set up and ran a freephone legal information line for 13- to 19-year-olds. Lawyers for Young People allowed children to call or email for initial advice, or be referred to a lawyer from a network of firms. A pilot scheme ran in Colchester, Lambeth and Camden, and all seemed hunky-dory. But it just missed out on some lottery funding and, sadly, The Children’s Society was unable to continue funding the project after the spring of 2011.

Redundant, Liz took the chance to study for her MA and see if her fiction might take off.

“Looking back, I had done a lot of writing – articles for the legal press and that sort of campaigning element – but it didn’t occur to me at the time that I could pursue ‘writing’.”

She’s convinced that vulnerable young people’s need for access to the law is as great as ever – probably even more so.

This year, the number of applications to take children into care hit a record high. Fine, if that’s the best course of action, but the system must be properly funded and strong enough to improve the lives of those young people.

“Support services for children in care need to be consistent and robust to effect real change,” she argues – hard enough to achieve given a fair wind and even more challenging against a backdrop of public spending cuts.

“I think there needs to be a serious amount of money put into the social care system – and, from what we’re hearing about the care of older people, it seems to be the elderly, as well as the young, who need it.”

One thing Liz noticed as a lawyer was that teenagers coming into care often had a number of pre-existing problems to contend with. “They’d go off and you wouldn’t know if they were going to get the rest of it sorted out. They might not have the support networks around them. You can see how these problems expand.”

Many young people in care have mental health problems. “That speaks for itself. There’s much need there for therapeutic services, but again, if the money’s not there they’re not going to get it, and that will have a massive impact on later years.”

Liz is a firm believer in sorting out difficulties as soon as possible. It limits the damage and usually turns out to be cheaper in the long run. We need more well-trained and resourced social workers and support staff, she says, to help youngsters in care get a decent start. If they don’t, they risk a chaotic future.

“They are the adults of the future, and if these patterns continue” – early pregnancies, for example, and being over-represented in jails and under-represented in further and higher education – “you wonder if some of these cycles are ever going to be broken.

“It’s not fair on the individuals. Lots of the young people I represented were fantastic, very strong and intelligent, and had had a lot to deal with. As teenagers, many had already been through more than most people go through. They should have as much support as they can be given, so they have the chance to have an education and get a decent job.”

Still a children’s rights lawyer at heart, even though she’s currently not practising, Liz keeps an eye on developments. She’s very worried about the impact of �350m of cuts to civil legal aid, due next spring.

“Certainly in family cases, what that’s going to mean is that legal aid won’t be available for parents who are in residence and contact disputes. So whereas in the past if, financially, you were unable to afford representation, you could get legal aid to ensure you could, I think what it will mean is that if people can’t afford it, they can’t afford it, and they will end up representing themselves.

“You may have situations where the court is going to have to deal with litigants in person – which might cause delays, especially where you have complex cases. If you’re taking lawyers out of the equation, you’re not having that opportunity for negotiation to be much more effective. A lot of cases now are resolved at the court door, through lawyers working very hard to negotiate everything.” That, she says, will be less likely to happen.

“You may have big disparities. In my play, for example” – Liz wrote a number during her MA studies – “I’ve got a father who is very, very wealthy, and with an expensive legal team representing him at a final hearing, but the mother has no income, no access to legal aid, she’s got mental health issues, and she has to represent herself. It’s going to mean a lot of change, and be very difficult for the court system and the judges, too.” It sounds as if fire still burns fiercely. Does she think she’ll ever return to full-time lawyering? “Maybe once the children are completely grown up. [Liz has girls aged 12, 14 and 16, plus four stepsons.] I could see myself going back into it, because I really loved it. Some of the work has not been run-of-the-mill stuff. But at the moment I’d love to get the writing going and see where that takes me.

“I’d hate to think, later, ‘I wish I’d done that.’ I’m very happy to try something and, if it doesn’t work, to say ‘OK’, and move on with the next thing.”

Before she made it big, Harry Potter creator JK Rowling would write in cafes. Liz often gets herself out of the house, too. “I’m much better writing in places where there are people around me,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s the noise I need . . .” When she does work at home, she has company of sorts in the form of pet Aubrey, a tortoise aged about four years old.

“I hear him shuffling around when I’m writing at the kitchen table. I do talk to him – especially if I’m in the house too much and are spending the days isolated. He almost raises his eyebrows . . . ‘What’s she talking about now?!’”

Her children, meanwhile, have read Losing Agir and been “generally kind – they’re very loyal – as have the rest of my family; but you have to take it with a bit of a pinch of salt, don’t you?” she laughs.

If all goes well, she’d like to produce more books and plays based on aspects of the law – a subject that produces so many potential emotional storylines. “But what I don’t want my books to be is too heavy. I hope this book is uplifting, because at the end of the day they seek justice, they sort things out, and it’s a positive message – which is what I hope all my books will be seen as, even though they deal with some elements that are very dark. I don’t want people to be sitting there feeling depressed when they’ve got through it!

“I hope I create an awareness of the law and human rights. It’s what I did in my job for so many years – creating an awareness of the law and campaigning for access – and I believe that’s what I could do through my fiction as well.” She adds that “if my books can generate just the tiniest interest amongst young people of the law and legal issues, I’d be totally delighted”.

• Losing Agir, issued through Live It Publishing, is avail-able from Red Lion Books in Colchester; Young Browsers in Wood-bridge; and Amazon. It costs about �9.99.

The law: a font of inspiration

LIZ has also written (but not yet published):

• The Silk Slaves of Bangalore, about trainee silk buyer Hope. Sent to India to meet a supplier, she is horrified to discover how the profits are made. She sets out to keep the job she needs while saving children from their dangerous work.

• Discoveries is about 15-year-old Melody, who discovers she was adopted as a baby, meets her birth mother and is plunged into a dangerous world.

• Her plays include Trailblazer, shortlisted in this year’s Drama Association of Wales One Act Playwriting Competition.

It’s about teenager cancer patient Blaze, living miles away from her younger sister, who’s in foster care. In hospital, Blaze is obliged to get to know an ill boy and these two young patients from different backgrounds develop an unlikely friendship.

• The Captive Birds features four brothers and sisters who have to decide whether or not to visit their mother, jailed for murdering their father.

• In Best Interests, 14-year-old twins Jess and Gracie have been brought up by their mother, Mercy, after their father abandoned them. But Mercy is bipolar. When their father returns, rich, he decides they should return to America with him. In the court waiting room before a hearing, David and Mercy confront the past and the future.

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