Pro bono & community action – Birmingham firms volunteer for employment advice line

Getting employment law advice in Birmingham may soon be as easy as ordering a pizza, under a practical new advice scheme.

Birmingham’s big guns have teamed up with a local branch of the College of Law and the Saltley & Nechells Law Centre to launch the Birmingham Employment Rights Advice Line (Beral). Brindley Twist Tafft & James, Browne Jacobson, Eversheds, Hammonds, Pinsents, Shakespeares, Wragge & Co and St Philips Chambers have combined to create and staff the advice line. It will help people facing legal issues at work.

Anyone can call Beral confidentially, 24 hours a day. Callers are asked to leave their name and contact number, and a Beral representative then calls them back to request more information. A conflict check takes place before the case is referred to one of the employment law volunteers. They will then phone the client during the weekly ‘surgery’ sessions on Wednesday evenings.

Pam Kaur, an employment lawyer at Pinsents and volunteer at the service, says that the matters can range from queries about holiday entitlement to incidents of bullying in the workplace. Where a matter requires ongoing advice and representation, the volunteers refer the client on.

Tom Pettitt, manager of the Saltley & Nechells Law Centre, said: “For most people, employment law is almost prohibitively complicated and they can’t get hold of the advice they need, even though it’s been designed to protect them. Neither do they know where to go for help because it’s either expensive or difficult to access. Beral is designed to bridge that gap.”

The firm

While volunteers hail from a number of firms in Birmingham, Pinsents and Wragge & Co are the two most heavily involved. Project manager Steve Butts of Wragges worked alongside Pinsents’ pro bono coordinator Rabina Kosar to spearhead the design and implementation of the scheme.

More than a year in the making, the project was finally launched in September 2003. It involves around 24 qualified employment lawyers, trainees and barristers, recruited to the cause by Butts and Kosar.

They have also been busy advertising and promoting Beral in the local media, and the advertising drive has paid off. Many callers to the hotline report that they heard about the service through radio promotions.

The Lawyer verdict

Steve Butts is right when he says: “Collectively, all firms taking part in Beral have been able to achieve so much more than any of us could have done individually.” It may lack the headline-grabbing quality of swashbuckling human rights or death row work, but Beral is the embodiment of a worthwhile pro bono project. Together, nine firms and chambers have created a programme that widens the ability of ordinary people to gain access to legal advice.