Free legal aid group opens clinic in Tower Hamlets

Bernadette O’Sullivan, CSR Manager for Dentons law firm. Pic: Imogen Mills

Whitechapel residents seeking legal aid are being urged to visit a new drop-in clinic in Whitechapel where they can access free advice.

Solicitors offer pro bono advice at the Poplaw clinic at the Ideas Store in Whitechapel to locals on issues ranging from housing, employment and welfare benefits.

The sessions, run by the law firm Dentons, follow a model established at a successful ongoing clinic in Poplar. They opened in Whitechapel with the help of the pro bono solicitors group, Law Works, in response to a need in the community.

Bernadette O’Sullivan, Dentons’ corporate responsibility manager (CSR) told Eastlondonlines: “We recognised there has been quite an increase in demand for legal advice and we’ve seen the numbers rising at our Poplar clinic.

“We did some due diligence and recognised that there is a need and a demand for a second clinic in the borough. That’s when we took the decision to open another one.”

After the cuts in the legal aids system, demand for pro bono work has risen, with Poplaw seeing a 24 percent increase between April 2015 and May 2016.

Statistics from 2016 show that legal aid for consumer debt, discrimination and housing dropped compared to 2015, with the latter dropping by nine per cent.

In just over a year, the Poplar clinic handled over 53,000 requests. To stay on top of the high demand, O’Sullivan has 125 lawyers and trainee solicitors from Dentons on her rota.

She said: “It’s very well engrained in the culture of Dentons. Everyone knows about Poplaw, and because there are so many people on the rota nobody is required to go more than three or four times a year.”

Most cases have to do with employment, but can range from welfare benefits to consumer credit or housing. But because the clinic is a walk-in instead of appointment, they never know who will come in or what the issue will be.

O’Sullivan said: “We decided to do it like that 11 years ago and we’ve decided to stick with that model. Also, we feel that people won’t be as organised and some people might be put off by that, they might just leave it or maybe ignore their issue and so it snowballs further and then you’re further down the line. And it’s what we’re used to now- we’ve done it for so long, it works.

“A lot of the queries seem to be pretty basic and common sense and are easily dealt with by our lawyers, but may be monumental for our clients.

“Often clients will bring in a letter with them from the council that they just don’t understand. Some of our clients don’t have English as their first language, so that makes the situation even more difficult for them. We have resources at the clinic and at the office, so we can get someone in to translate if needs be, or our lawyers can do research at the office. ”

Overall, Poplaw has served 4,500 clients and have provided over 10,000 hours of free legal advice, saving the community 4.8 million pounds in legal fees. This led to Poplaw being rewarded with the Lord Mayor’s Dragon Award for longstanding achievement last year.

But for O’Sullivan only one thing is important: “We want everyone to know that we’re here. We are here in Poplar and Whitechapel 50 weeks a year. That’s the message we want to send out. People can come and see us for anything. We are here to help.”


One Response

  1. Natalija Rascotinai March 30, 2017

Leave a Reply