Having become involved with a pro bono initiative over a year and a half ago, I wanted to demonstrate just how a group of law graduates – with a plan in mind and support along the way – overcame many obstacles to set up an end-to-end advice clinic, writes Bernard Mustafa. This culminated in the setting up of Horizon Legal Advice Clinic, which focuses on providing advice on Personal Independence Payment (PIP), a welfare benefit.
This proves that equality before the law and equal access are in fact more than lip service when groups with the relevant expertise and experience stand up to and address issues such as the severe cuts in the legal aid sector.
The roots of any project can be often traced back to a past experience which left a strong impression on individuals. This was, for a couple of us, the first-hand experience as Student Advisers within the Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre (QMLAC). It showed that a determined team working towards a common goal can make a real difference. Daunting though it was, QMLAC and others like it provided sufficient inspiration for us to start our own initiative.
The idea of setting up own legal advice centre was floated among the initial members of the team over a catch-up coffee in February 2015. At that point, our idea could have remained just that – an idea never to be realised in tangible form. It was only once we had begun the scoping phase in earnest in the summer of 2015 that we realised that we had guided the initiative safely past its first obstacle – actually getting started.
Motivation and enthusiasm are what ensures that momentum is maintained to keep such a long-term project on the right track. Therefore it was essential to constantly reaffirm the reason for which we initially began this project – a LawWorks report from that period showed a clear need for such an initiative, with over 43,000 PIP queries received by the Clinics Network in the year ending 31 March 2015.
A project of this magnitude requires a clear structure going forward if it’s going to have any chance of success. It is important, therefore, to have a very good idea about the steps that need to be taken and in which order – dealing with the practical and regulatory aspects.
In practice this amounts to thinking about securing the venue, the type of insurance needed and how to fund it, sourcing volunteer advisers and obtaining the support of law firms. Crucially, you must ensure you have a clinic supervisor in place. Arvin Narendra, formerly the head of the welfare department at Duncan Lewis and now a senior consultant, very kindly offered to support us in this role – his years of experience and expertise in this area of law have proved invaluable.
This initial phase of setting up the legal advice clinic for us took a good many months, but that is not to say that it always will – though I imagine this depends on the type of project you’re looking to set up. Knowing who to turn to for assistance – the people with the know-how – is crucial, because despite the interesting ideas you may have, if you lack a coherent plan you will not be going anywhere fast.
After some speculative emails to City firms, our stroke of luck came in October 2015 when we received a positive response from DLA Piper’s pro bono team. Looking back now, we realise just how instrumental their willingness to listen to our proposal and share their experience was. We came away from this meeting with a more focused approach and a blueprint in mind for what to do next.
The support from DLA Piper’s pro-bono team was maintained throughout, and we really are grateful for their advice and words of encouragement. They assisted us in creating the pitch proposal for the initiative, which made the case for the clinic and how it would address the need which existed, as well as showing that other issues such as insurance and venue were in sorted out (see below for more detail). This was then disseminated to out collaborating law firms for their consideration in terms of whether they had capacity for their lawyers to contribute their time.
In essence, a pitch proposal document must clearly identify:
- the purpose of the clinic and area of law it would focus on;
- roles of the volunteers: solicitors and non-solicitors; and
- regulatory issues e.g. having in place a Professional Indemnity Insurance (PII) and Public Liability Insurance (PLI).
It should also note the time commitment you are looking for from the volunteering lawyers, thereby enabling them to properly consider if their can meet this alongside their workload and other commitments.
After the final version of was circulated in July 2016, we were glad to receive the support from a number of law firms: Ashurst, Clifford Chance, O’Melveny & Myers and Weil Gotshal & Manges.
We initially launched our initiative as a Pilot scheme on 4 October 2016 and this was concluded just before the New Year. In our experience, it’s a good idea to undertake a Pilot scheme first and to keep the number of clients relatively small as the purpose is to see how the processes and procedures you have put in place work in practice – lessons learned can then be implemented before scaling up.
Initial assessments suggest that the Pilot was a success in that it enabled us to see the changes that we need to make including the importance of continual training of our volunteers rather than a one off session. A lot of our cases are still ongoing; however we have already won an appeal for a client at Tribunal level, so we are pleased with our progress so far.
If you are keen to explore the idea of starting up a similar initiative to address a cause close to your heart, bear in mind these lessons to do with practical matters that we’ve learned along the way.
There are two main options (i) Limited Liability Company with a charitable purpose; or (ii) Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) registered with the Charity Commission. Setting up a Company is much easier as it only takes a couple of days to register with Companies House, whereas it can take several months to become a Charity. Nevertheless, from our perspective, the advantages of being a Charity for us far outweighed the time and effort required – in particular:
- Public confidence: an organisation’s status as a registered charity gives the public the assurance that comes from being monitored by the Charity Commission. As such, a charity can raise funds from public and local organisations more easily than other non-registered bodies; and
- Tax reliefs and exemptions (e.g. Gift Aid).
Unless you have ample funds to rent, the best option would be to reach out to Community Centres/Organisations. Try to negotiate the use of their premises rent-free – an approach adopted by several City firms e.g. Dentons runs legal advice sessions from within the Ideas Store, and Clifford Chance operates in cooperation with Community Links in Newham. In our case, we were successful in securing premises within a community centre in Newham through a License to Occupy. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to secure a lease via such an arrangement as it would be difficult to satisfy the ‘exclusive possession’ requirement of Street v Mountford.
The SRA requires all legal advisers to obtain Professional Indemnity Insurance (‘PII’), which extends to advice given by legal advice clinics on a pro bono basis. There are two ways that a legal advice clinic can operate:
- Led by a law firm: in this scenario, the client is considered to belong to the law firm and the advice given will need to be covered by the firm’s own insurance; or
- An agency basis through the advice clinic: here, the client belongs to the advice clinic and is covered by the clinic’s own insurance.
The second option may sometimes be preferable because some law firms’ insurance policies may not cover pro-bono advice and so they may be reluctant to get involved unless insurance by the advice clinic was in place. As such if you opt for the agency basis you need to be aware that the cost of insurance is quite considerable and starts from over £2,750 pa for up to 50 solicitors. Our experience is that Advice UK is one of the providers with the most favourable insurance quotes in the PII sphere, but it’s always advisable you shop around for the best quotes that suit your particular initiative.
We came to realise that once we demonstrated genuine steps taken to launch our initiative, we found no shortage of law graduates and paralegals wanting to make a difference. They are very keen to support pro bono projects that seek to address the legal aid cuts by contributing their time and experience to alleviating the financial burden of legal advice for society’s disadvantaged and vulnerable individuals.
Initial costs of setting up an advice clinic can be quite prohibitive, not least due to the cost of PII, so it would be better that you start thinking early on about your sources of funding. In our case those involved in the initiative donated and/or loaned Horizon LAC over £4,000 so far. Other avenues to explore include a crowdfunding campaign, or applying to London Legal Support Trust for a small grant (you may have heard of them, they organise the annual Legal Walk!
Despite the time commitment involved in such an initiative, we would definitely encourage law students and graduates to get involved with similar initiatives. It is highly worthwhile and there’s a deep sense of satisfaction that you will gain from helping those in need and with nowhere to turn to.
Bernard Mustafa is the founder of the Horizon Legal Advice Clinic.
In getting Horizon LAC off the ground we were grateful to have the support, assistance and extensive know-how of the legal profession. In particular, our initiative would not have been possible without valuable contribution from Arvin Narendra of Duncan Lewis and several Collaborative Plan law firms: Ashurst, Clifford Chance, O’Melveny & Myers, Weil and Gotshal & Manges, as well as the support of many individuals that are associate members of the clinic.
If you have any questions/queries, you can get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.