It’s Pro Bono Week and we are celebrating the lawyers who donate their time to provide free legal advice to members of our community who may not be able to afford a solicitor. Nicoletta Crivellaro, our volunteer and pro bono coordinator, explains more about our free legal advice clinics and how you can access the service.
Firstly, what is Pro Bono Week?
Pro bono is a Latin term meaning ‘for free’ and during Pro Bono Week we celebrate the law firms and individual solicitors who generously donate their time for free to provide the community with a way to access justice. Here at the Law Centre we work with around 400 volunteer advisers meaning that our clients can access legal advice from some of the top lawyers in the country without it costing them anything.
How does it work?
Our volunteer advisers empower members of the community with the knowledge and the confidence to pursue their legal rights before their situations become unmanageable. Although, as volunteers, they cannot take cases on, they can advise people in which next steps they can take to resolve legal issues.
Is the advice one-off?
Yes; it’s important to make clear the difference between casework and one-off advice, which is what the clinics offer. If you get advice from the clinics, the lawyer who advises you will not carry out any work other than the advice given at your advice appointment or maybe drafting a letter for you.
One-off advice can be just as useful as casework – many members of the community are resourceful and tenacious enough to progress their legal issue themselves, they just don’t know where to start. Legal advice at our clinics can give them the knowledge and confidence to resolve the issue for themselves, which can be extremely empowering. It also equips the community with knowledge that can be used in the future.
What about legal aid?
If you qualify for legal aid then your adviser will carry out follow-up work and will provide full representation. However Legal Aid is very restricted and clients need to fall into very strict eligibility criterias to qualify for a free representation. Unfortunately that does leave thousands of people who do not qualify for legal aid, who are stuck in complicated legal matters they may not understand, who do not have the means to afford a solicitor to access justice.
What sort of issues do the clinics cover?
The vast majority of people who contact the Law Centre for one-off, free legal advice have issues with landlords in regards to the return of their deposit, or because they live in properties in poor conditions and their landlords are refusing to carry out repair work or replace faulty items. Many others are trying to go through divorce procedures by themselves, or arrange child access with their ex-spouse after a separation and need assistance in identifying which forms to fill out and how. Our volunteer advisers are also able to assist with free legal advice in areas such as Consumer Rights, General Litigations, Small Claims, Criminal or Employment matters. The advisers are there to diagnose whether the clients have a case and which steps can be taken to move things forward.
If a client comes to us with more complicated issues which require representation, then we can point them in the right direction; if a client is eligible for legal aid then we refer them back on to our daytime services.
Can anyone access the clinics?
Although we aim to assist the most vulnerable in society, the clinics are open to anyone, regardless of their income. However we do not advise landlords in relation to their tenants, business owners or employers, due to a potential conflict of interest with other clients.
Can you give an example of someone the clinics have helped?
One case which will always stays with me is that of a tenant who called into the Law Centre because her agency refused to return her deposit.
She had been sharing her property with her partner for many years, but when the relationship broke down he moved out and her cousin moved in. The agency was informed and a new tenancy contract was issued with the new tenants. A few months later, her ex-partner set fire to the property, with the client and the cousin inside. Although the client escaped unharmed, she was traumatised by the experience and she lost all her possession. The police were involved, who charged the ex-partner with attempted murder and arson. Shockingly, in addition to this traumatic experience, and after losing all her possessions, the agency attempted to retain the deposit as a way to recover the damages, in effect blaming our client for the accident, where she almost lost her life.
Our volunteer adviser wrote to the agency a very strong worded letter, setting out the legal obligation of the agency towards the tenants and the client received all her deposit back.
To me, this is a great example of one-off advice providing the client with a perfect solution for a very distressing situation, and she got that advice completely free of charge.
How can I access the service?
If you need help in understanding your legal rights, please go to www.swllc.org/get-advice or call us on 020 8767 2777.