My involvement with the Freshfields pro bono practice began when I did a secondment at Tower Hamlets Law Centre as a trainee.
This was a great opportunity – I had some of my own clients and was involved in cases where I could see a real impact. Before this I had had vague notions that the government had some responsibility to assist the homeless but had no real understanding of the legal concept of homelessness and the responsibilities that local authorities have towards homeless people.
Through working with clients I also began to learn about the particular difficulties faced by homeless teenagers. Local authorities have a dual responsibility to house them under the Children Act and under the Housing Act. Although case law says that they should be housed under the Children Act, in practice many are passed backwards and forwards between departments and eventually fall through the cracks.
The youth homelessness project combines work that Freshfields has done with a number of pro bono clients. It brings together traditional court action with other forms of intervention to persuade local authorities to improve the way in which they treat homeless 16 and 17 year olds (and to follow the law on this). Authorities have tended to settle out of court if they are challenged on specific cases – but there is a wider group which has no representation and it is these young people who are less likely to receive the housing and support they are entitled to.
After receiving training on homelessness and social care legislation, a team of Freshfields associates and I write letters of complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman on behalf 16 and 17-year-old homeless people who have not been treated lawfully by local authorities. The case files are passed to us by front-line advice agencies who don’t have the time or funding to write these complaints.
These letters can make a significant difference to vulnerable young people – I drafted a complaint on behalf of a young woman who had accumulated rent arrears of more than £3,000 after a local authority had failed to fulfil its duties to her when she was 17. She received enough compensation sufficient to pay off her arrears in full.
I was also part of a team that worked closely with the Law Centres Network to request the internal joint working protocols that operate between the housing and children’s services departments on the treatment of homeless 16 and 17-year-olds, from all local authorities in England. A team of trainees reviewed these protocols to assess whether they were lawful (the law in this area having been clarified by test cases such as TG v Lambeth, in which Freshfields acted for Shelter intervening).
The results of Freshfields research formed part of a briefing published by the Law Centres Network and presented to a group of local authority representatives and front line advice workers. This brought together two sides who are often opposed to each other in individual cases to discuss best practice. It was great to feel that we had been part of a positive discussion about practically improving things for this vulnerable client group.
Rebecca Sambrook is a dispute resolution associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.