In the docks/aid advice. Undercover protection force
12 May 1995
The publicity for World Aids Day has put one giant condom on the Paris obelisk and floated another across the Thames. But few are aware that the Terrence Higgins Trust runs a legal advice service for HIV and AIDS-related problems.
Although the Helpline is well-known, the trust's legal services group recently decided its legal advice service should be better publicised with the launch of its new poster for the twice-weekly telephone advice link Legal Line.
The priority for the poster was that it should not alienate potential callers and should stress the professional calibre of advice. The advice covers almost every practice area including wills, employment, medical complaints, immigration, insurance and confidentiality. It is provided by a team of 60 volunteer solicitors and barristers as well as three staff solicitors in the trust's Advice Centre. The volunteers also staff Legal Line.
This form of pro bono work attracts lawyers from a range of backgrounds. One lawyer, Annone Butler, saw a letter in a legal magazine in 1991 asking for volunteers to help staff Legal Line. She said: "I summoned up the courage to apply - would they accept someone as non-PC as me, a heterosexual, married mother of two?"
They did. Butler, who works for the Government Legal Service, has been the group's secretary and training officer for the last three years. She added: "I remember my first group meeting vividly. There was a discussion about the legal implications of one of the trust's leaflets which advocated 'spanking' as a form of safer sex. This worried some group members because of the recent decision in the Spanner case [which decided consent was no defence to a charge of causing grievous bodily harm during sexual activity]. I can't say I was worried at all; after a tedious day dealing with rent reviews and licences to assign, I was completely entranced."
The broad spectrum of the advice required is one of its attractions. Martin Davis specialises in agricultural property in a City firm. He said: "My work with the trust's legal services group reaches those parts which my nine to five cannot reach. It gives me a unique opportunity to use my legal skills to assist in a new and increasingly specialist area, one in which I am sure clients are comforted by the fact we are more likely to understand where they are coming from than most high street solicitors.
"It's also rewarding to be able to provide a free service to clients for whom money may be very tight and a legal bill is the last thing they need."
Apart from providing legal advice, the group has also campaigned on issues affecting its client group. The work has resulted in the HIV infection being covered by the Disability Discrimination Act. And in 1992 the group co-produced a 'living will' designed for those with the HIV infection.
The group also provides assistance to practitioners who are asked for advice on an HIV or AIDS-related matters. But the personal aspect of involvement with the trust is the main incentive for volunteer lawyers. Butler said: "It is impossible to point to any one factor which makes me stay. A lot of my trust clients have been younger than me, and many will now be dead, so anger is one of the things which motivates me.
"There are also intangible benefits: meeting people who are making the most of what may be a curtailed life span means I do less dreaming about the future and complaining about the present."