‘Work hard, play hard, give back’: How pro bono is keeping legal services alive

London’s East End is home to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the capital. GDL competition winner Eirwen-Jane Pierrot reports on the vital work carried out by the Tower Hamlets Law Centre, which ­provides free legal advice in the borough

The Whitechapel Road in east London is a bustling market street jam-packed with street vendors, Bengali sweet shops and Arabic booksellers. The air is filled with the scent of curry house spices, the sound of busy traffic and the sight of hundreds of people hurrying about the vegetable stalls

This is one of the most ethnically diverse and impoverished neighbourhoods in the UK and is the ­setting for the Tower Hamlets Law Centre (THLC), a modest grey building that would be unremarkable if it were not for the queue of people outside.

The borough of Tower Hamlets suffers from some of the nation’s highest levels of deprivation. According to the End Child Poverty Campaign, it has the highest rate of child poverty in London, with 79 per cent of children living in low-income families. The area faces high levels of unemployment and crime, and records one of the highest ­population densities in the capital. Only 23 per cent of school children here speak English as their first language. It is hard to believe that this poor part of London’s East End is barely a mile from the City of London, the UK’s commercial centre and home to some of the world’s most prestigious law firms. If it were not for the four smartly dressed City lawyers huddled into one of the centre’s meeting rooms, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a world away.

The lawyers – two associates and two trainee solicitors – are from Norton Rose, a leading international legal practice. All four have given up their evening to staff THLC’s weekly evening drop-in clinic, which ­provides free legal advice on employment matters and general enquiries to anyone who needs it. But far from being exhausted after a long day at the office, they are smiling and energetic and keen to get down to work.

“I really enjoy coming here,” says Jacqueline Bell, a solicitor specialising in the banking, aviation and finance sectors. “It’s an enormously satisfying way to spend my time and is totally different from the work I do at Norton Rose. My job involves big business clients with huge sums of money and, although I enjoy my work, when I initially thought about becoming a lawyer it wasn’t what I envisaged myself doing. But here at THLC I have the ­opportunity to have meaningful contact with clients. I know that the work I do here is directly relevant to someone’s life and I can use the skills I have to make a very real difference. By coming here, I realise just how easy it is to help someone.”

Juliana Ismail is a trainee solicitor hoping to qualify into dispute resolution. “I know that I’m in a privileged position, so I feel that I have to give something back to the community. It’s all about getting the ­balance right. Working in a big firm is a lot of work, but despite that, everyone is ­supportive of pro bono work. Maybe that should be our motto: ’Work hard, play hard, give back’.”

THLC has provided legal advice to the residents of east London since 1969 and has had a relationship with Norton Rose since the 1970s. It also has links with the pro bono centre at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, several universities and law schools, and the Free Representation Unit (FRU), a charity that trains law students and legal professionals to provide free advice, case preparation and advocacy for those who, for want of personal means or public funding, could not otherwise obtain legal support.

The centre provides a valuable community resource that empowers and supports local people, helping them to understand and access their rights. Like all law centres it concentrates on areas of law that disproportionately affect poor people, such as housing, immigration, welfare benefits, employment and discrimination, and carries out no commercial work. The value of the centre’s work has been recognised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which ­awarded THLC £40,000 from its highly competitive Grants Programme.

“Legal advice is a priority area for the grants programme because we recognise that for many people approaching a high street lawyer is a daunting and expensive task,” says John Wadham, a solicitor and legal director of the EHRC – himself a ­former employee of the law centre movement. “Without services like law ­centres many people would be left with no means of exercising their rights.”

Recent changes to legal aid funding have jeopardised much of the independent advice sector that has traditionally provided advice and assistance in discrimination, human rights and social welfare matters. In 2007 the ’fixed-fee’ system of funding legal aid casework was introduced, which pays the same fee to the firm/organisation regardless of work undertaken. This ignores the complexities and higher costs of delivering legal services in areas such as Tower Hamlets, where a high proportion of clients are vulnerable and have a poor grasp of English. Even with the financial ­assistance of bodies such as the EHRC, the THLC is feeling the strain.

“The fixed-fee system will only cover around four hours of a solicitor’s time,” explains Jacob Foabowale-Makinde, THLC’s employment lawyer. “Often this isn’t even enough time to fully uncover the facts of a case. Many of our clients have very little understanding of their human and legal rights, so teasing out the relevant information from them is difficult and time-consuming and must be handled with care.”

The volunteer lawyers are therefore not merely a helpful addition to the THLC team but are a crucial ingredient for the centre to be able to operate.

“I don’t think the volunteers realise how important their work is,” Foabowale-Makinde continues. “For them it’s a nice thing to do. They have the opportunity to get client contact, to think on their feet and to learn about different areas of law. But for us their participation is vital. It would be impossible to run the clinic without them. Look, there are people queuing outside
in the freezing cold because they have nowhere else to turn for help. Without the volunteers we’d be completely swamped.”

THLC hosts the Employment and ­Discrimination Law Group, which provides an important service to the people living or working in five east London boroughs. Despite the huge population it serves, the facility is only able to employ two lawyers: Jacob, who works part-time, and Gordon Quilty, a full-time discrimination lawyer.

“We really appreciate the time the ­volunteers give,” says Quilty. “I trained with Allen & Overy and was with them for seven years before moving into social welfare law. I know what it’s like to be a City lawyer: the hours are long and the pressure is high. So when they give up their time to help us it means a lot. Not only are the volunteers essential for providing one-off advice, but they have the skills in interviewing and analysis necessary to help us filter out the really significant cases, which we can then take further.”

All the volunteers are able to give ­examples of people who had little or no understanding of the law, their rights or their entitlements, and who they were subsequently able to help.

“I recently met a Turkish man who was being racially abused at work,” says Camilla de Moraes, another of the volunteers. “It had been going on for a long time and he had been subjected to violence. He was clearly very upset and didn’t know where else to go. He didn’t understand the ­complaints process and had never even heard of a trade union. What meant a lot to me about that case wasn’t just that I was able to give him advice but that when he left he looked as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. I think that for a lot of people who come in, they just need someone to talk to and to be reassured that they do have rights and that they do matter.”

With the help of the volunteers, the ­centre was able to help hundreds of people in similar situations.

“Last year we managed to give more than 400 pieces of employment advice alone,” says Quilty. “Only this week we reached a settlement for a client who had been a victim of disability discrimination – a client who was initially seen by one of the volunteers.”

The cost of legal advice means that pro bono work is a vital cog in the machinery of the British justice system.

“There can be no substitute for the expert advice of specialist legal aid lawyers,” says Wadham. “Poor people should be able to have the same quality of service as the ­better-off. That means having a specialist adviser who can take their case from start to finish. This cannot be achieved by pro bono alone. But where it works effectively, and where the volunteers are able and committed, pro bono can help those vital services such as law centres to stay alive.’

This is an edited version of the GDL-winning article by Eirwen-Jane Pierrot