Trainees to provide free help with benefit claims

Students from London law colleges will begin representing social security claimants for free this year, if a scheme being devised by law student Kit Johnson gets the necessary resources.

Johnson, who finishes his LPC at the London College of Law in June, has a year off before he starts his training contract at Clifford Chance in March next year. He is in discussions with the college to use a room and administrative staff in order to coordinate a free representation unit similar to that run by the Bar for Bar Vocational Course pupils.

Johnson aims to have the first students begin cases in September, but has to raise between £50,000 and £70,000 to pay for expenses, including having a fully-qualified solicitor to staff the office. He intends to write to City law firms and colleges to ask for donations.

Students will represent appellants at the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, which deals, for example, with people who have had applications for income support refused. Legal aid funding for lawyers is not available for these cases.

Johnson said: “There are some 100,000 such claims a year nationally and only 25 per cent are represented, and then usually by friends or family. It is no surprise that those who are represented have a greater success rate.”

Students would not “tread on any toes,” he said, because the work is not legal aid funded and the sort of people who make the claims cannot usually afford a solicitor.

Johnson said the scheme would be “a very good way for students to cut their teeth in the real world rather than sitting in a classroom. For those students who have not obtained training contracts, it is something else to put on your CV and talk about at an interview.”

Clifford Chance partner Tony Willis, who is coordinating the launch of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group, said he had written to Johnson.

“I was very keen on what he was doing and have said that I hope we can make common cause once we are up and running in the summer.”

Willis has had over 140 applicants for the full-time post of director of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group. He revealed that interviews are scheduled to begin in May.