East Enders set sights on the City

Chris Fogarty reports

From his chambers window in London's East End, barrister Samuel Owusu-Afriyie has a view of the City and, he hopes, his set's future.

Owusu-Afriyie is one of 10 barristers who, 18 months ago, moved into the ethnically diverse environs of Brick Lane to work among some of the UK's poorest families.

Called Tower Hamlets Chambers, the set is based in two simple, slightly shabby offices. Cheap rents and the difficulty of finding tenancies at the Inns of Court were what attracted Owusu-Afriyie and others to the slightly less salubrious surroundings of Brick Lane. They believed they would be able to make the law more accessible and affordable for their clients.

But now the Ghana-born Owusu-Afriyie also wants to mingle with some of the UK's wealthiest – the potential City clients who reside a mere half mile away from his office.

"I believe we can set ourselves up effectively to serve the City clients because we are just a stone's throw away from them," he said.

He thinks that the growth of the chambers is dependent on the City, but admits this view is by no means shared by all the other tenants in the set, many of whom work from home.

Recently the set has been rocked by internal changes, with both chambers' founder Mohammed Ullah and management committee member James Apea leaving.

Ullah is believed to be setting up his own practice, while Apea is understood to have left for another set. Neither was available for comment.

The other problem facing Tower Hamlets is its financially strapped client base.

"We have a lot of people with immigration problems and people who are in dispute with the Department of Social Security," explained Owusu-Afriyie.

Barrister Ahmed Shikder is disappointed by the level of support the chambers has received from well-funded public bodies in the East End.

"When I joined the set I was expecting we would get lots of instructions from public bodies like Tower Hamlets Council," he said.

But public officials, while supportive of the barristers' move into the area, have yet to provide substantial work.

There have, however, been some successes. These include the opening of a small, smart annexe just around the corner from Brick Lane and strong support from the Bar Council, top QCs and judges – last year's Bar Council chair David Penry-Davey QC and the Law Lord Lord Hoffman are among the prominent legal figures who have made official visits to the chambers.

Yet Shikder and Owusu-Afriyie admit that the set has an image problem in that it is often seen as a worthy community service rather than a commercially attractive one.

This has led to vigorous discussion among barristers on the future direction of the set.

If it attempts to move into City work the set may leave itself open to criticism that its stated aim of helping a community has been overtaken by financial pragmatism.

The multi-cultural Brick Lane barristers are in a difficult position: while aware that they have a responsibility to their communities and the young Asian or black barristers of the future, they also know that they have families to feed and mortgages to pay.