Chambers has since grown to cover many areas of practice, but remains committed to the original principle of ensuring that all members of society can enjoy access to justice. Whatever the area of expertise, members are all passionate about excellence in terms of representation and giving a voice to those who need it most.
The idea for the “pop-up” clinic emerged from a family team meeting at a time when the first round of legal aid cuts in family law really began to bite. We all had clear opinions of the detrimental impact of these cuts on the public. I was already seeing the effects in the form of weekly occurrences where helpless litigants in person were arriving at court without legal assistance or the requisite legal knowledge to deal with their cases. Some hearings were taking longer than necessary or having to be adjourned. Most judges are doing a sterling job in attempting to limit the damage but there is only so much they can do bar getting down from the bench and sitting next to the litigant in person and representing them.
The initial intention was to set up a free advice clinic as an off -shoot to 1MCB as per the Code of Conduct (rules 806 – 807) in relation to law centres, with barrister volunteers available for a drop-in service. The challenge was how this was to be done.
Insurance and Bar Council rules
Through Bar Mutual we were able to get confirmation that its insurance covered our barristers providing free legal advice through a clinic within chambers. It turned out that LawWorks could also provide covers for volunteers working through its law centres/clinics. Other law centres and charities may already have their own insurance under which volunteers can work. The Bar Council’s response to our enquiry about a pro bono clinic within chambers was that to establish the advice centre in accordance with the Code, it would need to be designated by the Bar Standards Board as suitable for the employment of barristers.
The final partnership
We liaised with various law centres including those operated by LawWorks, a pro bono charity supported by the Law Society which provides consultancy and advice to establish and support free legal advice sessions staffed by volunteer lawyers and students. LawWorks was enthusiastic about the new venture, and provided information about the running of such clinics, the responsibilities of barristers volunteering, what to expect and how volunteering is arranged. What was not clear was whether we could provide our service as volunteers via their existing clinics or would start a new clinic entirely. We wanted initially to narrow the geographical area of the pop-up clinic and so also met with South Westminster Legal Advice Centre (SWLAC), a registered charity that runs free advice clinics in Victoria, London for the most vulnerable individuals in society, and with Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB).
None of us knew what we were about to let ourselves in for and I am thankful that that did not deter all those involved. It was agreed with LawWorks, SWLAC and CFAB that it would be better to have the clinic based within chambers and that the family team would provide advice on the basis that we would be committed to the clinic.
Formalities on structure
We then contacted the Bar Council Ethical Enquires Team, who confirmed that chambers was free to establish a legal advice service. However, barristers still have to comply with the Code of Conduct and the rules applicable to the self-employed Bar. Those wishing to follow suit will also need to take into account paragraph 401 of the Code.
However, as it was our intention not to involve solicitors or other professional clients in our clinic, the Bar Council advised that we should consider the public access route. A few members of the 1MCB family team are already direct access qualified and so we were confident we could begin the clinic immediately.
Once we were sure of how the clinic was to operate, we notified the BSB that Chambers intends to share premises with SWLAC (“Legal Advice Centre”), by way of a Pop-up Legal Advice Centre at Chambers (“Pop-up Clinic”). SWLAC is designated as a Legal Advice Centre for the purpose of Rules 806 and 807 of the Bar Standards Board Code of Conduct.
Rule 403.2 permits self-employed barristers to share office facilities and other premises with any person provided that certain conditions are met. 1MCB considered the following to ensure complete separation between Chambers and Pop-up Clinic including:
1. Pop-up Clinic will share premises with Chambers once a month, for a maximum of seven (7) hours once per month;
2. Legal Advice Centre will provide insurance for advisors and advisors will be providing advice in their capacity as volunteers of the Pop-up Clinic;
3. Appropriate separate signage, headed paper from the Legal Advice Centre and marketing material for pop-up clinic will ensure that clients are aware of the separation between Pop-up Clinic and Chambers and ensure that no impression is given that Chambers is conducting business in concert or coordination with Pop-up Clinic;
4. There will be no general referral arrangement or understanding between any tenant of Chambers and the Popup Clinic or Legal Advice Centre.
5. Clients will be booked in for appointments at the Legal Advice Centre and will attend Pop-up Clinic on instruction of the administrator at the Legal Advice Centre. Chambers will not undertake any administration, such as the answering of telephones on behalf of Pop-up Clinic. Clients will be given an information sheet detailing that the advice session is run by Legal Advice Centre and advisors are volunteers of Legal dvice Centre. Should clients get confused and telephone Chambers, they will be immediately referred to the Legal Advice Centre. Where any work is undertaken on a computer system, this will be separate from Chambers’ computer system.
6. Clients of Pop-up Clinic will be instructed that Pop-up Clinic is operational once a month and that they will only receive advice on the evening of their appointment. If a client requires a follow-up appointment or requires further advice, they will be referred back to the Legal Advice Centre for another appointment at Pop-up to be made on their behalf.
7. Chambers, Legal Advice Clinic and volunteers of Legal Advice Clinic will carry out an on-going review into these procedures and will undertake a review meeting after three months of Pop-up Clinic operating.
Setting up the clinic
As 1MCB Pop-Up would be a new clinic, we had to set out clearly how it would operate. After discussions with South Westminster Law Centre and LawWorks, a working handbook was created. This is a two-way process and should be relatively simple. However it did need a lot of enthusiasm from both chambers and the charity to ensure that a working handbook was produced – but this is a given when embarking on any sort of pro bono project.
How it works in practice
LawWorks or SWLAC advertises the pop-up clinic to their clients. Referrals are then made to the 1MCB clinic if the law centre assesses that a particular case is outside their expertise and needs the assistance of a specialist barrister. The law centre then liaises with chambers’ administration and appointments are made for the next clinic. It’s always useful to have an individual who is co-ordinating the volunteer schedule, at least in the early stages. This will ensure that there is a pool of back up volunteers in the event of any exigencies. An internal roster is created within chambers to ensure that the Pop-up clinic is operational at all times. Volunteers are provided within the family team on a monthly basis. The location of any centre could vary, hence the title “Pop-up”. What is important is that the public have access to the service provided.
Once the referral is made, all relevant documents and information obtained by the law centre/client are sent to chambers and passed on to the barristers volunteering at the next clinic. The client turns up at chambers on a drop-in basis where advice is given by the barrister. If the barrister is unable to assist, then a referral is made to another organisation.
Why the clinic is important
My first client was a young man who was terrified that his EEA national wife was about to leave the UK. He had not seen his children in months. He had already visited 13 solicitors, all of whom told him that he was not eligible for legal aid and so could not assist him. He was overwhelmed when he was told that we would be able to assist him with advice for his upcoming hearing. That was in October 2013. One year on the problems he faced in obtaining representation are still present an unaddressed.
At the official launch of the 1MCB Pop-Up Clinic, during Pro Bono week on 4 November 2014, Baroness Hale noted that: “In the.... Supreme Court we realise that things have changed out of all recognition over the last 18 months. We are getting applications for permission to appeal to us from litigants in person on a much larger scale than we ever used to get.”
Perhaps our Head of Chambers Lord Anthony Gifford QC put the current situation on the ground best when he concluded that: “It takes me back to the 70s when I was involved in the beginning of the Law Centre movement. In theory there was a Legal Aid scheme, but in practice no lawyers willing and able to operate it. The Law Centres and the solicitors firms, the public interest firms that came out of that movement, the Barristers’ Chambers that came out of that movement, turned the ideals of justice for all into a reality. Then we had the passing of the Human Rights Act. We could really say in this country that people did have access to justice. I am very distressed to see the way in which that ideal has been compromised by government policies which weaken the rule of law. This experiment is a small attempt, but a very important attempt, to put this right.”
THE LAWWORKS QUICK GUIDE TO SETTING UP A CLINIC
- Identify the need for legal advice in the local community, then identify a management staff member and other key staff to be involved in planning and running the clinic.
- Obtain internal support and cooperation and recruit volunteers.
- Find a place to host the clinic.
- Define the aims of the clinic.
- Check public liability insurance and professional indemnity insurance in place.
- Plan the clinic: where and when; appointment or drop in; special needs; general or specialist advice; filing procedures; resources for advisers; supervision; referrals.
- Draft a volunteer handbook together with the necessary procedures.
- Prepare a volunteer induction session and provide any requisite training.