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I began giving pro bono legal advice through Clifford Chance at the Tooting Legal Advice Centre during my LPC year, sitting in with advisers and assisting with follow-up research and drafting tasks.
I very soon got a feel for the extent to which even those who are at an early stage in their legal careers can really help people in need, many of whom want something more akin to common sense advice than “legal advice” per se.
A lot of the clients who wait in line – often in the cold and the rain, this being London after all – come seeking advice on the kinds of matters which affect most people at some stage in their lives: employment issues or disputes with mobile phone companies, broadband providers or deposit-grabbing landlords; the sorts of things which just about every law student and lawyer is asked about by friends, relatives, friends’ relatives and friends of relatives.
While many people are able to deal with these issues on their own, some find that they need help through lack of confidence, language difficulties or a real need for their legal rights to be set out.
Of course, not all of our pro bono clients fall into these relatively straightforward categories. On one occasion I had to negotiate with the UK Border Agency for the return of 7,000 cigarettes, which two well-meaning Poles had attempted to bring for their friends and family while visiting. At another clinic, I had to explain to a particularly entrepreneurial pair that, unlike Al Capone, tax planning probably wasn’t the most pressing legal advice that they needed for their business plan to grow marijuana in their attic.
I recently took on the case of a minicab driver who had inadvertently bought a stolen car which, as anyone who has ever studied contract law will attest, he had to return to its rightful owner.
Without a vehicle, the client was unable to work and provide for his family. The dealership dragged their feet over the client’s legitimate request to be reimbursed and it was only when the team at Clifford Chance intervened with the threat of legal action that they came up with over £18,000 to allow him to buy a new car and get back to work.
Ultimately, the pro bono advice we give depends entirely on the individuals who come through the door on any given evening. Some are just looking for someone to vent at while others have had their lives seriously affected by legal issues and have a real need for advice, support and assistance. As long as this is the case, there will be a need for lawyers to volunteer at clinics, drop-in centres and on advice lines and long may a spirit of volunteerism from the legal sector continue.
Jonathon Caunt is a dispute resolution and litigation associate at Clifford Chance.