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Fifteen-partner Newcastle firm Robert Muckle has rejected the traditional pro bono route of providing legal advice to the socially deprived to concentrate on giving commercial advice to the charities that help them. The flagship project is St Chads Community project in Bensham, Gateshead. Bensham, where the Government has housed many asylum seekers and which last year was the seat targeted by the British National Party's North East organiser, is third from bottom in the local authority multiple deprivation index. Employment stands at just 40 per cent and the mortality rate is 25 per cent higher than the national average. St Chads provides childcare, drop-in sessions and family support. Robert Muckle has handled all the commercial legal work, from incorporating the charity to providing ongoing property and employment advice. Robert Muckle managing partner Hugh Welch has no doubt that the people using St Chads have themselves a range of legal needs, but he says his firm is not equipped to provide it. "If you went into Bensham you'd see the main problems people face are to do with domestic violence and asylum claims. As a commercial firm, we don't have the expertise to advise on the hard social issues and these are the sort of things St Chads deals with," he explains. Robert Muckle has expanded its pro bono offering by giving similar commercial advice to a range of local charities (see box) and has joined the London-based Solicitors Pro Bono Group.
The Lawyer verdict The Lawyer has long advocated commercial firms giving free advice to charities as a way of matching their pro bono schemes with their skills. Users of St Chads will have a large range of civil legal needs not covered by legal aid that Robert Muckle could advise on, and the firm should be applauded for its decision to stick to what it knows best.
The firm In the last 12 months Robert Muckle lawyers have given around 1,100 hours of pro bono legal advice, valued at approximately £150,000. There is a huge amount of commitment at the top of the firm - 10 of Robert Muckle's 15 partners undertake regular pro bono work. Robert Muckle undertakes free commercial legal work for a large range of local charities alongside its project with St Chads. These include the Northumberland County Blind Association, the Northern Disability Arts Forum and the local branch of mental health charity Mind, as well as the Newcastle Cricket Centre in Gosforth, the Newcastle Education Business Partnership and close to 20 other organisations. Since April 2002, Robert Muckle partners have made cash contributions totalling more than £100,000 to the firm's charitable fund, which is administered by the Community Foundation. Since April the fund has made donations to more than 30 voluntary organisations. Around 25 Robert Muckle staff also participate regularly in non-legal community work.