The Open Justice Team are delighted to introduce the first in a series of guest blogs. This post is by current Open University law student, Mohan Ramcharan.
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Pro Bono Saved Me
Pro bono publico (English: for the public good) is a well-known phrase, especially associated with law. A lawyer who does pro bono work is doing it free of charge, and is likely helping some poor soul who finds himself in unfortunate circumstances where he can’t afford to pay a lawyer. Sometimes, as in my case, that poor soul doesn’t even know he needs a lawyer.
My circumstances were, I suppose, unusual. I was a tenant renting privately, with a good job, good credit and nary a worry in the world. That good life fell through when I was diagnosed with blood clots in both lungs… a late diagnosis that came only after I had an incessant cough that never got better, and only when I began to cough up blood and went to A & E was a correct diagnosis made after 24 hours of endless tests.
Thus began daily visits to hospital for warfarin injections, constant INF monitoring and absence from work for almost 18 months. Needless to say, I was let go and being ill at the time, could not take on a legal battle against my then employers. That wasn’t the really bad part though. As I was unable to work, I began receiving Housing Benefit (HB) to offset my rent, which was more than the HB payments. So every month, I was getting deeper in debt to my landlord by about £60, which was making him annoyed. A discretionary housing payment was thus made to him and the debt squared.
The real problem started when the there was a gas leak in my area, and a whole section of underground pipes had to be changed. Each house was then spot checked, and the inspector found there was a gas leak from my stove (cooker) and an illegal connection to the flume in the attic. The gas to my home was then condemned and shut off; the recommendation was for a new heating system, a combi-boiler, to be installed. This was in May of 2011.
The landlord kept saying he had no money to install a new system, and I was not able to move as the Council advised I ‘would be making myself homeless’ and then will not be able to get further help, either in alternative accommodation, or in HB. So here I was in a ‘proper pickle’ as it were. I struggled with my illness, still receiving warfarin treatment, all through the year and through the winter of 2011. I lived in a house with absolutely no heat, no ability to cook and no alternative to go anywhere, no matter how many complaints I made to the Council or to the different authorities I could think of… the result was the same – no help as they could not force the landlord to install a new heating system if he claimed he had no money, even if the house was ‘not fit for habitation’.
In February 2012 I had an angioplasty as I developed a heart condition that required immediate treatment. Even with this new problem, the Council refused to assist. The Housing Officer who visited me said I needed no help, as my medical conditions were not such that I could not survive on the streets. Yes, the criteria to qualify for housing is that if you are ‘street homeless’ it would be injurious to your health. If not, you are literally expected to survive on the streets!
By this time, I had sunk into a severe depression and was receiving treatment in the form of anti-depressants and anti-psychotics, as – no surprise here – I had actually begun having thoughts of offing myself to put an end to my misery.
In an odd moment of clarity, I received an email from a young lady at Carillion Housing who told me that she was sent my matter as a pro bono case. I had no idea who referred me to her, but I had been calling around to various law firms and to legal clinics for advice. The long and short of it was that this young lady took up my matter and in a manner reminiscent of Perry Mason, or Rumpole of the Bailey, she wrote a brilliant letter making the point that if I were ‘street homeless’ I would not have access to a fridge to store my medication as required (s189(1)(c) of the Housing Act 1996 as interpreted in R v Camden LBC ex p Pereira (1998) 31 HLR 317, CA). Surely such a small thing, but I could not survive on the streets as I would be ’more vulnerable’ without my medication and I wouldn’t have a fridge on the streets. Who knew?
That little point was the dam that began turning the tide for me. The Council acknowledged that she was correct, and I was given an opportunity to view a flat where I relocated after approving it. Before moving into it, I suffered a heart attack which I survived only because I was in the hospital (I refused to leave when they were discharging me as I was still having pain). I am still here in the flat, where I moved in July 2012 at which time I still had no heat at my old address! One year fully without heat and not being able to cook.
My biggest regret is that I never got to thank that young lady as when I sent an email, I was informed she was no longer working there. Maybe she was just a new graduate doing some free work or getting experience, I do not know. I know that her intervention saved me in more ways than I care to admit, and if she can read this and remember, please know that my thanks is without limits.
Pro bono might be tiresome to lawyers, especially well-established ones – but for people like me it makes all the difference in the world. I am currently pursuing a law degree myself and doing quite well in my exams. I do advocacy part time and remember my own situation when I try to help others. Others may need that helping hand that I received out of the blue.