BPP Pro Bono Centre’s Legal Advice Clinic – A student perspective

fullsizerender_1Charlotte Barrington is a London LPC student. She volunteers with BPP’s Pro Bono Clinic (BLAC), one of the Pro Bono Centre’s projects. The Pro Bono Centre facilitates around 30 projects engaging law students to deliver pro bono legal advice and education services to improve access to justice. Charlotte was invited to speak about her pro bono experience as part of a Spark Talks event launching National Pro Bono Week 2016.  This is the transcript of her talk:

 

 ‘I am mostly addressing myself to fellow students and I have a definite agenda. That agenda is to recommend that you get involved in pro bono work as much as you possibly can while you’re studying, and if you already are, that you get others involved too. I’m going to give you some reasons, based on my own experiences.

The two pro bono projects I was most involved with over the past year were the Personal Support Unit, which supports litigants in person attending court, and the Housing Advice Clinic here at BPP. I’m going to focus on the Clinic, as I think my experiences there were more specific to me, and so I hopefully have some useful insights based on those experiences.

 BPP Pro Bono Centre’s Legal Advice Clinic

In retrospect, I was very fortunate with the work I was assigned in the Clinic. I have to say, I didn’t feel very fortunate early on. I was assigned a client who already had debt proceedings brought against him and his wife in the County Court for service charges owed on his leasehold flat. There was a long background of disputes between himself, his landlord and the property’s managing agents. The crux of the problem when he came to the clinic was that he had been living for several years with serious damp problems in his home. No-one seemed willing to help him with these problems, or even really to listen to his complaints.

He and his wife are both in their 80s, and the client himself would be the first to say that he finds it difficult to manage the issues in his home, and especially to understand court proceedings and his rights during them. The proceedings themselves made him quite conflicted. He is definitely angry, and understandably wants recompense, not to mention clarity, but he also finds the process extremely stressful, baffling and all-consuming.

This year, a property tribunal judge came to train housing clinic students. One thing she said really stuck with me. It was that housing disputes in particular really take over people’s lives, and while they are going on it is hard for the people whose home is the focus of the dispute to ever feel at ease. At least with, say, an employment dispute, you can leave the place where your problem is at the end of the day, but a legal problem affecting your home is there for you every time you come back, in the place where you should feel most safe.

At the point the client came into the clinic, he had already served a defence without advice, but he was very worried about what he’d submitted, and ultimately about the prospect of paying thousands of pounds after having had no help with the repair of his home.

This was last October. We are still waiting for the final hearing of the matter, which should take place in December. Over the course of the 14 months in between, these are some of the things I did, none of which I’d done before, or, to be honest, knew how to do.

  • Wrote letters of advice to a real human being, including to summarise for him the strengths and weaknesses of our case, and to prepare him for his role in the hearing
  • Wrote a complaint regarding the other side’s solicitors
  • Drafted a defence, counterclaim and interim applications
  • Drafted a witness statement
  • Drafted skeleton arguments
  • Represented the client at an applications hearing, and soon, the final hearing
  • Prepared bundles for the final hearing

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Why do pro bono?

At each successive stage, I felt out of my depth. Last October, I had just started the GDL and was only beginning to get to grips with what land even means, legally, let alone what rights a leaseholder has.

The reason I say this is because, in retrospect, I know that the single best way to feel less disoriented and more capable, is definitely to work somewhere like the clinic. It’s a place where you’ll be supported doing all these new things until you can support yourself, and where it is safe to get things wrong in first drafts, so you can properly understand what makes the final draft right.

I’ve also come to think of it as a kind of vaccination program against the fear of the first time. You obviously won’t become an expert overnight, but the fear will never be as bad the second time you, for example, submit a skeleton argument to your supervisor. When the second time comes, you might be in a paid job, you might be quite new to that job, so you could really do without the fear.

I think that’s one of the major benefits to students of doing this work, beyond the ‘I have to for my CV’ feeling. To be honest, it will help you with your applications and interviews. That will be because you’ll have detailed, meaningful, specific experiences to draw on, that you’ll feel comfortable talking about, not because you’ve ticked a pro bono box.

Another major benefit is that pro bono experiences are going to be the beginning of your way in to bigger conversations about legal policy and practice. Assisting a litigant in person, for example, will give you an insight into what it really means to know that the Personal Support Unit is experiencing a four-fold increase in demand on its services since the year before the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act was introduced.

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There is so much still to learn. But at least having these experiences means that when, for example, Shailesh Vara, the former minister for legal aid and courts, says, as he did in this building only last month, that our court system is set up to cope with litigants in person, you’ll have the beginnings of your own ideas about that. Then you can share those thoughts with other people, and then you’ve joined the conversation, and you’re not just listening anymore.

I’ve focussed mainly on how pro bono projects are going to make things better for you. I should finish by affirming that you are going to help make things better for the people who need these projects. The majority are used to being told no-one can help them, whether that’s because the Legal Aid Agency can’t fund them, or that advice charities don’t have enough appointments available to them, or that court staff can’t advise them. You are going to be able to say yes to some of these people, which is a start.

Then, the difference you’ll be able to make will always vary. But it doesn’t have to be finding a case-winning clause in someone’s contract: that’s rarely possible.

After the applications hearing earlier this year, I left the courtroom with my client, and turned to him to celebrate that it had gone our way. I could immediately see that things had been conducted so fast, and in such a particular form of language, that he had understood nothing of what had been said. He didn’t know he had won. To be able to explain, as someone on his side, that he had got what he wanted, and why that was and what it meant – in particular that he didn’t have to worry about the claim against his wife anymore – this was a relatively simple thing. But to be in a position to do it felt like a privilege, and it’s a privilege available to you, if you do pro bono.

For more information about BPP’s Pro Bono Centre, please email probono@bpp.com.

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