Extending a helping hand

It takes commitment but voluntary work at legal advice centres is a good source of all-round experience, says Kate Cartmell. Kate Cartmell is a trainee solicitor at Nicholson Graham & Jones. It is Wednesday evening and I have had a hard day at work, rushing up and down stairs and receiving four new things to do all at once. However, as I push my way through the commuters and trudge up the hill in the drizzle, my destination is not home but a south London legal advice centre, where there is a crowd of people outside the door waiting for the 7pm start.

Sessions are held on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 7pm until 9pm. I am on the Wednesday rota, which has enough volunteers to space my visits out to once every three months, although I occasionally help out on extra evenings when those due to do their stint cannot attend. The four advisers – mainly trainees though there is always at least one qualified lawyer in attendance – along with a receptionist, see up to 15 people who live or work locally.

The visitors complete a short questionnaire to give the advisers an idea of their problem. The most common questions are ones concerning landlord and tenant, employment, family and consumer purchase laws. (Questions about social security and benefits are dealt with by the daytime advisers at our host neighbourhood advice centre.)

Advisers tell the receptionist their preferred topics at the start of the session, so an appropriate trainee can be allocated to each visitor.

At first I was worried that I might not know enough law or practice to be able to help. However, I was surprised how much I could remember from university and law school days.

The centre has a microfiche encyclopedia of basic law so you can refresh your memory, and the City firms that organise the rotas and contribute to the running costs also arrange occasional evening update sessions on the aspects of the law most frequently encountered. If all else fails the visitors never seem to mind an admission of ignorance, coupled with an offer to write with the answer in the next few days.

The main problem with legal advice centres is continuity. Visitors frequently need to return to report on developments or ask for clarification, but will rarely see the same adviser twice. The record system counteracts this as much as possible by providing each adviser with all the visitor's previous papers.

Where one adviser wishes to continue dealing with the same matter, communications from the visitor to the adviser must, for insurance reasons, be carried out through the centre – this is not ideal when a 14-day time-limit applies. Advisers occasionally volunteer to do some follow-up work, usually just a little research or a phone call and a letter reporting the result to the visitor, but more extensive follow-up work is harder to fit around the adviser's normal office work.

Advisers cannot represent visitors in court, because of the amount of time they would have to spend on doing so and also because of the risk of the court ordering the adviser or the centre to pay the winning opponent's costs under the rules of maintenance of actions.

The Bar's Free Representation Unit and the Law Society's proposed Solicitors' Representation Unit will act only in tribunal cases, where no costs orders can be made.

Voluntary work has been in the headlines recently because of the likelihood of further reductions in the Legal Aid Fund. Apart from advice centres and the representation units, many firms and chambers have contacts with charities, or are members of groups like Business in the Community which brings accountants, architects and lawyers together to work on community projects. Liberty, the human rights organisation, has a panel of lawyers to advise on and conduct test cases involving issues of public importance and civil liberties.

Involvement in a legal advice centre scheme is very rewarding. The visitors are grateful that you have chosen to forego an evening in front of the TV in order to help them.

I have found it a good way to practise my interview and communication skills in a relaxed setting, and it has also increased the confidence I have in my legal knowledge and analysis.

Legal advice centres are a vital aid for many people who have everyday legal problems, as well as an enjoyable source of experience and training for the advisers.