‘W360: Feel the fear, and do it anyway – You could be very glad you did !’ by Susan Desfontaines

Now, I’m going to be frank. When I was considering my optional module at the end of my degree I was concerned about W360 Justice in Action (the Open Justice module) because, as a relatively new addition to the Open University’s offering, it was a bit of an unknown quantity and the success of my overall degree grade rested on how well I could do in the last two 30 credit modules. I had a big interest in social justice, so it had real appeal, but I was particularly concerned about the team-working element and whether, despite my best efforts, this could negatively impact on my grades.

I was also the girl that started this degree not quite knowing where I wanted to go with it, but who had always said from the start “it definitely wont be criminal law.“ Ha! How wrong I was.

Once I embarked on W360 I decided to get fully out of my comfort zone and signed up to the Freedom Law Clinic project to participate in a criminal appeals case, the reasoning being that I would get the most out of the module by experiencing an area of law that “ I definitely wasn’t going to get into. “ I also taught A level Law at the local school, which I was able to add to my pro-bono experience portfolio.

At the law clinic I was assigned to a joint enterprise murder case and became increasingly engaged in what I was doing. It was challenging, and the workload every bit as demanding as I had been warned it would be, but I thoroughly enjoyed the practical application of the legal skills that I had developed over the course of my degree studies.

I also used the opportunity to improve on my team working skills, which, because of my need for control, had been of such concern to me. I was well supported by my assigned tutor, who dedicated time, effort and frank feedback into showing me a better way to work well within my team and deal with the frustration I felt when others did not apply the same work ethic I demanded of myself.

The experience has transformed the way I view myself as a person and a professional, it has ignited my interest in pro-bono’s relationship to justice and in criminal law itself. I also gained real insight into my own strengths and weaknesses.

As a result I will be starting with a local authority next month as their legal officer, prosecuting rogue landlord cases in the Magistrates’ Court and case managing and briefing advocates for cased to be dealt with at the Crown Court. I will be training on the job, before being assigned my own independent case load and be responsible for deciding if the cases and evidence collected meet the CPS tests.

It’s a role I never envisaged taking up at the start of my degree, it is invaluable experience as I start my legal career and it is in no small part a direct result of my W360 experience, from both my viewpoint and that of the interview panel who doubled the length of my allocated interview slot in order to discuss the experience!

W360 is challenging and by no means easy or comfortable, but if you engage in it wholeheartedly you may well be shocked with just how much it has to give back in terms of personal and career development.

‘Paralegals: the importance of gaining as much experience as you can’ by Amanda Hamilton

Amanda Hamilton is CEO of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals

The changes within the legal services sector over the last decade, means that there is plenty of scope for paralegals to take up the slack and fill the gaps left by those changes. These opportunities have been as a result of the virtual eradication of legal aid for consumers, the level of fees charged by solicitors and barristers (inaccessible for most), the cost of academic training and the abundance of law graduates.

The consequence is that paralegals are starting to become the go-to legal service providers for most consumers. This is why it is so important to gain as much experience as possible, as soon as possible in your careers whether pro-bono or paid.

Many Universities are opening their own law clinic to provide a service to the local community and to offer the opportunity to law undergraduates to gain experience at an early point in their careers. My advice to all students studying law: get in there and take up this valuable chance to gain experience listening to real people talk about their very real problems. The practical application of the law beats any scenario-based assignment that you may be working on!

Engaging in pro bono work is an important way of helping develop the skills and knowledge you will need if you decide to pursue a pathway as a paralegal. Having experience from pro bono work should give you the sufficient confidence to either gain a paid paralegal position or end up running your own paralegal firm.

Even if your intention is to qualify as a solicitor or barrister, the experience you gain at this stage will be invaluable. Gaining a paralegal position in a law firm could eventually lead to a sponsored LPC and the more experience you have, could lead to by-passing a training contract into qualification. Several ‘paralegals’ already have made it through this route and one or two are now junior partners in their firms.

However, you should not dismiss the idea of becoming a career paralegal professional. Joining a professional membership body (like NALP) and gaining a NALP Licence to Practise will give you the credentials to set up on your own, offering legal services in a similar way that solicitors do but obviously there are some activities that you cannot perform. These are ‘reserved legal activities’ which still remain the monopoly of solicitors.

‘This is Real Life Law’ by Maurice Doona

In this blog post Open Justice law student Maurice Doona reflects on his experience of working to support litigants in person as they try to navigate the complexities of the family law court system.

‘This is Real Life Law’

Recently, a District Judge sitting at West London Family Court (WLFC) asked if he could share a table with me at a café over lunch. I volunteer at the Personal Support Unit (PSU) at WLFC. He had presided over hearings at which I was present, assisting clients through the private family law process. We had a brief discussion about being a law student practising voluntary legal work. Our conversation led me to reflect on how my understanding of pro bono legal work has been enhanced by volunteering at the PSU and led me to consider my motivations for getting involved.

I undertook the Open Justice module with a view that it would assist me in applying my legal studies to real-world situations. This coupled with my personal goal in achieving a ‘good’ law degree led me to apply to the PSU as a volunteer. It was clear that that these factors were all about my desires to succeed as part of my degree but on further reflection there was much more to it.

I had appreciated prior to joining the PSU, that their remit is not to provide legal advice and are not insured to do so. It is to assist Litigants in Person (LIP’s) with the court process through practical and emotional support before, during and after hearings. This has aided my understanding of how complex and daunting the legal system can be for those who do not have the financial means to pay for legal assistance. It has led to a realisation that I possess practical skills to help clients through the family courts.

This includes assisting clients with the paperwork and empowering them to have control of their personal legal issues. It can be by helping them to work out and practice their oral submissions. This leads to increased confidence and reduced anxiety which in turn allows the client a fairer hearing, especially, where the other party may have legal representation. Hearings in the Family Court are private proceedings, it is a privilege to have been provided access to the Court assisting clients who wish to provide a stable environment for their children. For example, being able to support a client in the successful award of an emergency order preventing removal of the children from the jurisdiction over the school holidays was humbling. The client had arrived at the court in a distressed and vulnerable state at 9am. She was directed to the PSU by security, fortunately we were able to assist her as some hearings had been transferred. I assisted the client to complete the C100 form ‘child arrangements’ and liaised with the court staff to process the application and to schedule an emergency same day hearing.

The skills that I have developed, I believe, both from a legal and general life experience, aided the client receiving access to justice. This was ‘Real Life Law’ in practice.

‘Open Justice – Reflections on teaching Human Rights’ by David Purdy

Prior to beginning the Open Justice module I held the preconception that pro-bono legal work was on the increase due to cuts in legal aid and was confined to the provision of advice and representation. However, as the module progressed, I was surprised to learn how broad the provision of pro-bono had become and was especially pleased to see that legal education is being treated with ever-increasing importance, prompting me to choose a Street Law activity, whereby I would work in a team of 4 other students to deliver a legal presentation to school pupils.

From the outset, I worked very productively with my team members. On reflection, this was made easier because my fellow students all shared my passion for promoting legal knowledge to those who would not normally have access to it. We all embraced the task and agreed to deliver an interactive presentation on human rights law which agreed was a topic which was both important and interesting to the audience. Additionally, whilst engaging closely with tutors, I began to learn that there is a broad desire to engage in pro bono activities within academic institutions such as the OU, a fact which is supported the materials I read and referenced in writing my first assignment from which I summarised that; “pro bono plays a valuable and productive role in increasing legal literacy and reaching out to marginalised groups with education projects [although] arguably encourages government to make further cuts which could further limit access to justice and damage the legal profession in the long term.”  On concluding the preparation of our presentation, I felt I had gained a comprehensive understanding of the pros and cons of providing free legal education and though there was an argument that pro bono enables the state to ignore it’s social responsibilities, I felt that the benefits of increasing access to legal knowledge massively outweighed this adverse effect. However, the true realisation of how important our work was had not yet emerged.

We delivered our presentation just as we had planned. It is no exaggeration to say that the response I felt from the audience placed the true importance of what we were doing into perspective. As I reflected in my portfolio; “This class of 16-year-olds at a Newcastle Secondary School appeared to be totally engaged. The make-up of our session meant that every pupil was actively involved, and the outward interest of these young people was incredible.”

The feedback from the pupils on the day told me that education on human rights and other legal rights and responsibilities is limited, if not non-existent in our national curriculum. As a society, how can we expect succeeding generations to understand their rights and obligations as citizens if nobody teaches them? I would strongly argue that these fundamental subjects should be included in mandatory education at a young age. However, until it is, the provision of legal education on a pro bono basis is not only important, but indispensable.

Ruth McFarlane : The OU at 50 – Students in Secure Environments

Over the last two years the Open Justice Centre has been successful in developing prison based pro bono projects. This success has been made possible by the support of the OU’s Students in Secure Environment Team who work to support prison learners studying with the OU. In this guest post Ruth McFarlane reflects on the OU’s 50 year record of making higher education accessible to students in prison.

Distance learning can be a lonely activity and we work hard at the OU to create learning communities so that students can engage with their peers and share experiences. We know that this can make a real difference, especially when students are finding things tough.

For OU students in prison, this isolation is exacerbated by the lack of social media or other online options increasingly available to mainstream students. However, the OU has been supporting students in prison since 1971 and we know that this environment offers other options for a study group and peer support to develop.

The new module W360 (Justice in Action) provides opportunities for OU Law students to undertake pro bono activities, including some public legal education projects which run in four prisons, as well as in schools and courts. Through collaboration between different teams within the OU, we have ensured that this also serves as an introduction to OU study for the participants in prison, many of whom have been encouraged to sign up for a degree following their engagement with the project.

Just as for mainstream students, all OU students in prison are allocated a tutor who supports them throughout a module, offering guidance and feedback on assignments. Where possible, tutors visit students in the prison or offer telephone support, and this also depends on the facilitation of prison education staff, many of whom are wonderful. The value of this tutor support was summed up by Liam, who served a 10 year sentence and completed his degree shortly after his release :

What needs to be acknowledged is the drive and determination of the Open University tutors I have had during my studies. Without a doubt, without them and their constant, active engagement with me and their encouragement when I wanted to give it all up I would not have completed my studies. The determination of the tutors when faced with the realities of a prison security department and the rules and restrictions was quite inspiring. It encouraged me to persevere and I am glad I did.

This quote reminds us of the importance of personal contact, which we are also developing through a series of open academic seminars now being held regularly in several prisons in the Midlands. These have been well attended by a very engaged audience, with OU academics who have presented on a wide range of topics from space science to politics. This is helping to increase the appetite for higher level study, and has the added benefit of giving academics more of an insight into the challenges of studying in prison, so that we can further tailor the support we offer.

At other establishments we have run study skills sessions focusing on generic skills such as note taking, referencing or exam preparation. These help to strengthen the learning culture within a prison and replicate some of the online help that is available for mainstream students. We currently have a student on ROTL working in our team preparing an evaluation of the impact of these sessions, which we look forward to sharing.

The OU orderly role was introduced at HMP Ashfield and is now in place across a number of universities where there are more than 20 OU students. The orderly is an experienced OU student who helps with administrative tasks such as registering for a module, keeping track of when assignments are due or taking bookings for computer use. They also arrange study groups for more generic support sessions, particularly for people who are new to OU study, who can benefit from the experience of others. We have found that this increased focus has made a real difference to student success, with average assignment scores going up, as well as overall student numbers in those prisons. This is an excellent way to demonstrate our commitment to the OU aim of “more students qualifying”.

Finally, we recognise the need to play to our strengths. We are a distance learning institution offering higher education to students in all prisons across the country. This means we can support people when they move across the estate and when they are released, but we cannot always offer the regular long-term local support that makes such a difference to students. We are really pleased to be developing links with a number of Prison University Partnerships, particularly the Inside Out programmes. This localised university engagement in prisons is recognised as offering a much-needed level of participation in higher education and we are now offering on-going accreditation pathways to students who want to pursue a degree while they are in custody and also when they are released.

Through all of these projects, we hope to increase opportunities for personal contact between students and university staff, across a large number of prisons. We have almost 1800 students in approximately 150 prisons and secure units across all security categories in the UK. Many of these initiatives are being facilitated by the Students in Secure Environments (SiSE) team at the OU, and if you haven’t yet heard about our fabulous colleague Stephen, please do take a moment to read his story, which has been featured as part of the OU 50th birthday celebrations:


And follow us on Twitter for more regular updates @OU_SiSE

‘The importance of making a difference through pro bono volunteering’ by Hannah Vo

Prior to studying the module W360 ‘Justice in action’, I was not sure what to expect, but was extremely excited for what might come. My core project was the Open Justice Law Clinic, which involved working in a team with other fellow students under the supervision of qualified solicitors with the aim of providing free legal advice to members of the public. I also undertook an extra-curricular activity called Digital Justice, which involved creating a web and app-based solution addressing different issues of employment law.

For each step that I took in the law clinic and Digital Justice,  I have received incredible support and the encouragement that I needed to keep on going by my W360 tutor and the Open Justice supervisor. During my participation in the law clinic, I have carried out different roles such as being a client contact person, an interviewer, a researcher, as well as drafting the proof of evidence and letters of advice. Through the Open Justice Digital project, I have learned how to use a simple website to create an Android app and made different decision trees. I have gain truly invaluable experience through these past four months, and I have been able to network with other students whilst improving my ability to work with different people. The teamwork has its challenges, but I have learned how important it is to work in groups because you truly cannot get far alone. We have supported each other in achieving our tasks and appreciated each other’s opinions.

I can reassure you that W360 : Justice in action will enrich your life whilst gaining relevant professional skills as I have mentioned above. Throughout my law degree, I have attended many legal and networking events, and so far, I have only heard about the importance of gaining legal work experience. If we could not get relevant legal work experience through, for instance, open days, vacation schemes, mini-pupillages, marshalling and so forth, then we should gain the relevant practical experience through pro bono volunteering because it would boost our CV and make us stand out. However, there is no mention whatsoever about the difference that we would make through pro bono volunteering. I will be completely honest that I chose this module sincerely to gain more employability skills. I wanted to gain practical legal experience to improve my prospects of obtaining a training contract at the end of my studies, just like I have been told all these years how important this is.

My first time I heard of the term ‘pro bono’ was in my first year of law school. I learned that it stands for ‘for the public good’, however, I did not know the importance of it until I have actually taken this module and completed my first case. I recall my team and I put our time and efforts in solving different legal issues. It was not easy and at the time very frustrating, but the moment when we sent the final letter of advice to the client and we knew that we have solved their issue, that feeling cannot be described. We just made a difference to someone else’s life, by using our legal knowledge to help a complete stranger in need without getting paid.

Through this module, I learned about the consequences of the legal aid cuts and different terms such as pro bono, social justice, professional identity, and legal ethics and values. I have also been given the opportunity to attend the Open Justice Street Law orientation in October 2018 and learned how to carry out a productive yet fun presentation with the focus on providing the members of the public with awareness, knowledge and understanding of different legal rights and issues through public legal education.

I have always thought that by volunteering I could make a difference to someone else’s life, but I never thought that volunteering would give my life more meaning. I have become more confident in different aspects of my life and have developed personal and professional skills. The value of pro bono legal work developed in the light of my participation in both the Open Justice activities has been vital and beyond my expectation. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: ‘the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’ I truly believe in those words. My desire to help people in need and the commitment to social justice has exceeded the desire to gain employability skills. I will definitely be involved in pro bono volunteering in the future because the experience will contribute to my further development and personal growth, which is considered as a great asset!

This journey has genuinely been personally fulfilling and rewarding.


Following a law student through a practical pro bono module (Part 2) By Sarah Couling

What happens when students and prisoners help one another?

When I left off last time, I was about to submit my final assignment before undertaking the practical pro bono projects. I am happy to report that I met the deadline and received some fantastic feedback that has assisted me in undertaking the projects. Having decided to separate the remaining portions of the blog; one for each project I have taken part in and a conclusion this blog will focus on my time in prison (and not for a crime).

I took part in a Prison Project at HMP Altcourse in Liverpool, which is a comfortable 2-hour drive from where I live in North Wales. Prior to our first of three sessions at the prison, we had a number of online meetings and set up a WhatsApp group to stay in touch. I think we all shared a similar level of nerves on that first arrival at the visitor’s centre of the prison. We were told to keep an open mind and be prepared to have our expectations shattered. But to imagine what it might be like was impossible.

Having been told not to forget out ID multiple times, we all checked in at the front desk and were given red ID badges to wear. We took note of the prominent signs that displayed all the items which were prohibited. Our phones were then switched off and stored in a locker on the outside. As we made our way to the university block, we passed though countless large metal doors that required locking on both sides. Our guide reassuringly told us that incidents don’t happen too frequently. I remember thinking ‘is it too late to change my mind and go back’?

I entered the prison tentatively with the preconceived idea that it would be like the movies, with orange jumpsuits and all. I was very wrong. It was only after entering the prison for the first time that I actually took the time to research and understand the purpose of a custodial sentence with rehabilitation at the forefront, which I have come to conclude is a wonderful thing.

We were given a full tour of the prison during the first session and my jaw hit the floor. The prison offered multiple classes and jobs for the prisoners. Teaching them a variety of skills from reading and writing, to art and practical skills. In one of the skills departments, the prison had little ‘bedrooms’ where they were taught to paint and decorate, giving the inmates invaluable practical skills for life after prison. I was amazed when walking through the university block, were the prisoner’s art work was on display. The talent that some of these young men have is breath-taking. It was lovely to see that they were able to pursue these passions, perhaps ones that they might not have discovered on the outside.

We stopped and had a chat with a prison mentor in the IT department. He told us how he went from knowing almost nothing about computers, but with his mentor’s support he learned so much. He then went on to become a mentor himself. It really was inspiring to see these men helping on another succeed.

Having left after that first session, I think we all had our eyes opened and our preconceptions shattered. Our purpose of entering the prison was to collect legal questions from the prisoners and present our answers on their radio station. I did not attend the second session at the prison due to prior commitments. However, the team tell me that they entered the vulnerable prisoner’s unit and collected a list of questions to go away and answer ready for the final session, our radio show. We split the questions up and began researching the answers. A fair few of the questions were related to subjects that we did not cover in the course of our LLB’s. However, the legal research skills we gained made finding authoritative sources of information easier. This was actually one of the questions we were asked on the day (whether finding the answers was easy).

The radio show was a success and we all presented our answers to the questions appropriately. Myself and my two colleagues answered a couple of questions on Imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences. This seemed to be a rather important question to the prisoners, and we did our very best to answer it for them. We also covered Home Detention Curfews, the rules surrounding spent convictions, the rules and requirements of the Sex Offenders Register, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, and the guidelines and rules surrounding sentencing. In addition to our legal questions, we all had to pick a song to be played, and it was a very eclectic mix of music. Including; Queen, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Toploader. I could not believe that the radio station was fully run by prisoners, with a friendly guard overseeing and assigning roles. It was wonderful to see the guard so visibly proud of the prisoner’s accomplishments, and rightly so as they were phenomenal. They were welcoming, kind, supportive, professional, and immensely talented at what they did.

I entered that prison thinking that I would be the one helping them, rather than them helping me. Again, I was wrong. I gained so much from the experience and I am so truly grateful to have met these fine young men. I fully support this type of prison program and I certainly encourage anyone with the opportunity to engage with prisoners to jump in. Programmes like this are helping to break down social barriers and create positive social change. They help change people’s attitudes towards different people, help to shatter incorrect preconceived ideas about prisons, and benefit both students and prisoners alike.

Louise Taylor: Independent Legal Representation for Crime Victims

In this guest post, Louise Taylor argues for a change in the way victims of crime are represented in the justice system. Louise is a full time PhD student with the OU Law school and is researching the development of a coercive control defence for domestically abused defendants. If you are considering studying for a law PhD and would like to contact Louise to discuss her experience of research, you can email her on louise.taylor@open.ac.uk

There are various points throughout the English and Welsh criminal justice process where victims would benefit from the provision of Independent Legal Representation (ILR) provided through the state-funded legal aid system. Such a development would be of particular benefit to victims in reducing the secondary victimisation that many experience as a result of their interactions with the Criminal Justice System.

Victim dissatisfaction and secondary victimisation can result from the lonely and sometimes hostile environment that victims are required to navigate in their pursuit of justice. This could be greatly ameliorated if victims were able to access free legal representation from an adviser who represented only the interests of the victim and who was experienced in the language and procedures of the criminal justice system. Access to ILR would also be of benefit to victims in ensuring that the agencies dealing with their cases (such as the police and CPS) were held to account in meeting the standards of support and protection required under the Victims’ Code of Practice 2013. The victim’s legal representative would be a single point of contact to offer advice to the victim and to access information on their behalf. This would prove particularly useful for those victims who wished to challenge the decisions of criminal justice agencies or utilise the Victims’ Code of Practice complaints mechanisms.

In the context of our adversarial system of justice the most controversial aspect of ILR relates to the provision of legal representation for victims during the trial process. Sam Garkawe advocates that ‘given [the] specific interest of the victim, the laws of procedural fairness seem to suggest that victims should receive consideration throughout the proceedings on the basis that they are substantially affected.’ Arguably the best way of protecting these specific interests is to provide victims with legal aid in order that they can secure their own legal representation. Not only would this allow victims to be better supported to give their best evidence in court, this would also provide victims with much more robust protection from over-zealous questioning by defence counsel than could ever be achieved under our current arrangements.

However, opponents of ILR contend that such a development would interfere with the defendant’s right to receive a fair trial, and more particularly, that the introduction of a third party to proceedings who would stand in opposition to the defendant’s position would undermine the central tenet of equity of arms which underpins our bipartisan adversarial tradition. This may be so if an ILR approach was adopted which put victims on an equal footing with the defendant, but there are clearly approaches that could be adopted that would fall short of that, allowing for the observance of the defendant’s rights while offering increased support and protection to victims. Other common law jurisdictions have been successful in doing so and there is no reason to think that this could not be similarly achieved in this jurisdiction. Indeed, as Fiona Raitt has explained:

‘Several common law jurisdictions, e.g. Ireland and Canada, have introduced specialised procedures for legal representation at specific procedural stages, or, as in the US, promote a far more robust, prosecutorial-driven case-building approach linked to more direct access by complainants to prosecutors.’

If one of these compromise approaches could be adopted in England and Wales then the adversarial nature of our system should not, in itself, constitute an insurmountable barrier preventing the provision of ILR through legal aid for crime victims. A much more real and present threat is however presented by the extensive austerity measures that were introduced to this jurisdiction in 2013 under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. In a climate where the government seek to save £220 million from the £1 billion annual criminal legal aid budget it is unlikely to prove politically and economically viable for the government to support the introduction of ILR for victims funded by the public purse.

During such challenging times it is also likely that the legal profession would be reluctant to support such a development. Where would the legal representatives for victims come from if not from the existing pool of criminal solicitors and barristers who may be understandably reluctant to become further embroiled in the uncertain and challenging legal aid market? Many of these potential advisers may also feel precluded from supporting ILR for victims at a point when many consider that the interests of defendants have been significantly and inappropriately undermined by the government’s cuts to the legal aid budget.

For more information see my full contribution to the EU funded project Improving Protection of Victims’ Rights: Access to Legal Aid which can be accessed here:  http://victimsrights.eu/

Pamela Grealy: Legal Advice Assistant- Immigration and Asylum Support

Pamela Grealy: Legal Advice Assistant- Immigration and Asylum Support

with Lambeth Law Centre from 04.7.17 to 12.12.18

I am a retired schoolteacher and studied law with the Open University after my retirement. I graduated in 2017. I have worked with immigrant families and asylum seekers in the past.

I applied for this position with Lambeth Law Centre not least because a fellow law student was taken into detention in his final year of study. With no legal aid available, he managed his own case for leave to remain and failed. Before he could be deported, he committed suicide.

In preparation for the role, I participated in a five-day online training course towards OISC level 1 accreditation in Immigration law. I provided support to a highly experienced and overworked Immigration lawyer during her advice sessions at an Immigration Hub in Greenwich which operates a drop-in advice service. It is a welcome respite for families in real need, providing lunch and refreshments donated by local shops, prepared and served by the team of kitchen volunteers. On one day per week, outreach workers provide collaborative support in immigration advice, housing advice, support for survivors of domestic violence, advice for families facing destitution, help in accessing healthcare. A team of Hub volunteers identify the initial needs and priorities.

My role was to upload client details to the database and key points from the interviews. When an interview became intense and distressing, I would divert the children’s attention or play separately with them for a time. The Home Office may apply discretion within the Rules, and any room for doubt leads to inevitable refusal. If a client’s story seemed confused, I would go through points in detail with them separately for clarification. This work would be written up as a supporting statement in an application to the Home Office or in answer to a refusal under appeal.

Due to lack of funding and capacity, clients are given guidance to make their own applications to whatever extent possible. It was always a joy some months later when relieved and grateful people returned to update us on their success.

Legal aid is available only in certain circumstances; for asylum seekers, those fleeing domestic violence and victims of trafficking. Exceptional case funding is available for cases deemed to have merit where human rights or European rights would be breached if they did not have legal aid. Solicitors with a legal aid contract can apply for costs to run these cases but it does not cover the true expense and many will not take on the work.

Trafficked people are often unaware of the nature of the crime and their human rights. That they have been trafficked at all often emerged during careful and direct questioning about the perpetrator’s systematic behaviour and all the surrounding facts. One of the first women I met having escaped her abuser, was sleeping on a church floor. By day she was on the streets and had on one occasion been attacked by a group of youths. She was malnourished and suffered mental ill health. Over the months, she began to flourish with support from the outreach and local authority services. Others brought to the UK by ‘boyfriends’ with promise of marriage and a good life, had escaped situations of dreadful abuse. The support of other services was vital, and the safety of the woman and any children always the first consideration.

It is however, often difficult to prove that a person’s Article 8 rights will be abused if returned to their country of origin. At a rigorous Home Office interview, applicants are challenged on the detail of their asylum claim. The lawyer tried to prepare women beforehand in an attempt to prevent their re-traumatisation.

Under the ‘hostile environment’ policy, overstayers have no right to study, be legally employed or rent accommodation. Without recourse to public funds they are charged for hospital treatment. We learned of resulting health problems for women afraid to attend ante natal and maternity services. With persisting ill health and concerns about her child, one woman was referred to Doctors of the World;  a medical charity supporting excluded people, including asylum seekers, undocumented migrants and homeless people,  to access health care.

I feel that the ‘hostile environment’ policy is compounded by the UK’s long period of austerity. Law Centres and voluntary organisations battle with limited resources to give impoverished immigrant individuals and families in the UK, access to justice. Without legal aid or pro bono legal help, the chances of successfully navigating the Immigration Rules, the application or appeals process for leave to remain in this country, are somewhat remote. Clearly, local authority and charitable organisations struggle to cope with the enormity of the inherent injustice in the system.

The rewards of pro bono volunteering by Mohan Ramcharan

It was a proud moment for me to contribute the very first guest blog on this forum – “Pro bono saved me”. For me it was a sobering reflection on a very stressful, indeed depressing, time of my life when my health did not permit me clarity of thought and the ability to help myself. The fact that a newly-minted lawyer was kind enough – even if it was her job – to go the length she did to help me, and make my life significantly improved, made a very strong impression on me.

If I have to be completely honest, I have never actively thought about getting involved in pro bono work. I think, for me at least, it has always been part of my internal ethical character – to help people who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances, mainly in part because of my personal circumstances. I had worked many years in social welfare, as well as doing voluntary work in the community, and assisting several government initiatives (in Trinidad and Tobago) to help those who were not capable of helping themselves.

Since March 2018, I have been volunteering as an adviser in the advice centre at my local community centre. I would like to think that I have made a difference in the lives of the clients who visit seeking assistance. I have had success stories; for example, the single mother living on benefits who bought a cooker which was defective – condemned within a few days of purchase – and the company refused to replace it for nearly one year. Law students will know that this is a breach of the Consumer Rights Act 2015. After I got involved, it was replaced within a couple of weeks. I remember when the client came to say thank you, she literally had tears in her eyes, as she could not afford to buy a new cooker.

I see many people who have been living in atrocious circumstances. Usually, it is the City Council that appears to be most at fault but also private landlords. Many times, repairs are not done in a timely or adequate manner and can cause significant health problems for tenants. Mould and damp are much too common and cause respiratory problems. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of these problems put the health of little children at risk – considerably more so than adults. The problem is so bad that I now have a standard paragraph in my complaint letters:

“The RSPCA would certainly disapprove of an animal living under these conditions! In fact, I dare say that the owner of any animal living in such accommodation would soon be prosecuted in court.”

The fact that Councils try to balance the use of resources against the health and well-being of tenants is certainly not a problem as far as the rights of tenants are concerned – Hotak & Ors v London Borough of Southwark & Anor (Rev 1) [2015] UKSC 30 made that very clear:

“an authority’s duty under Part VII of the 1996 (Housing) Act is not to be influenced or affected by the resources available to the authority. Once they have determined the status of an applicant under Part VII of the 1996 Act, their duty to that applicant is as defined in the Act: the fact that the authority may be very short of money and/or available accommodation cannot in any way affect whether an applicant is in priority need. In so far as a balancing exercise between housing the homeless and conserving local authority resources is appropriate, it has been carried out by Parliament when enacting Part VII.” [Emphasis added].

“Aha!”, you may say, “That only refers to homeless people.”

Well, under the Homelessness Code of Conduct Guidance, “a person who has accommodation is to be treated as homeless where it would not be reasonable for them to continue to occupy that accommodation.” [Emphasis added].

In the latter part of 2018 I represented a client in Small Claims Court, pursuant to Section 3(1) of the Lay Representatives (Rights of Audience) Order 1999, and as set out in CPR 27 and PD 27, paras. 3.1 and 3.2.

The client had a leaking roof since 2010. The City Council owned the property then and did not do any effective repairs. In 2016, the client bought the apartment he was living in. It was one apartment, in a building that contained 4 such apartments. The result was that he owned the apartment under a lease for the building, which was still owned by the Council and who was still responsible for repairs to the outside of the apartment where the client lived, including the roof of course.

The leak in the roof continued up to February 2018 this year when the client filed his claim in court, then the Council hastily put down a tar covering on the roof to stop the leak. It wasn’t enough, as by then 8 years of leaks had damaged his apartment to some severity. He was so stressed he had to be medicated and treated for depression and anxiety.

At court, the Council was represented by a barrister, a solicitor and a junior lawyer. Plus, the Council’s witness who was the person responsible for the computer system that logs the repair calls and passes the jobs to the repair contractors. This witness brought in a partial list of the call logs for the past 8 years showing that when the tenant (my client) called to get repairs done, he was not at home when the workers turned up. 13 pages of call logs.

But here was the Council’s mistake. The barrister argued first that the tenant, my client, had a responsibility to call the Council to repair the roof. The 13 pages of call logs showed that the tenant had in fact been in contact many times. This was a startling error in my view.

Second, he argued that the tenant/my client should be home to allow access to the roof. I merely pointed out to the judge that the Council’s own witness said in his witness statement that the roof was accessed at least twice using an elevated electrical platform from outside and that was at times the tenant was not at home.

The result was that the judge agreed that my client had no duty to inform the Council more than he already did, that he was not needed to access the roof and that the statutory law, as well as his lease, made the Council responsible for the repairs. He was awarded £6000, plus costs.

There are some lessons to learn from the anecdotes I related:

a. No matter how experienced you are in law, you can make elementary mistakes.

b. Do not be intimidated by the reputation or status of your opponent.. Prepare your argument well, and you have nothing to fear, or be ashamed of.

c. The law is not contained only in statute or statutory instruments. There may be guidance orders, case law etc and a well-prepared argument involves spending time on research, even if you do not need it in court or in your arguments. Better be prepared.

d. Don’t be afraid to be assertive on behalf of your client.

e. The law is both a shield, to protect your clients, and a sword, to assert their rights. Used appropriately, the battle is half-won.

f. Mind map everything. I actually presented my case to the judge as a printed mind map.

g. Clearly state that you are making a “formal complaint” when writing your complaint letter/email. Without the use of the words ‘formal complaint’, a complaint is treated as an informal complaint and there is no requirement to act upon it (advice from the Housing Ombudsman).

h. Always put complaints in writing. Never by phone calls – but if you do make calls, log the date, time and name of the person taking the complaint.

i. Keep copies of all your documents. You may need them as evidence if you need to go to court.

j. Resolving problems take time. Don’t get (too) impatient but follow the policies and complaint procedures and allow the time limits for responses and resolution.

k. Do not hesitate to escalate your complaints. Remember, the law does not help those who ‘slumber’ on their rights.

There may be other lessons that more experienced lawyers can share. This is a few that I have learnt in my volunteering experience so far.I hope more people do get into pro bono work.