EastLondonLines speaks to three members of a Tower Hamlets student-led pro-bono clinic, who work in their free time to help the borough’s most vulnerable citizens.
“I’ll never forget when a vulnerable woman came in, a single mother who struggled with an employment dispute and an unlawful discharge. She cried for hours as she held her weeping baby and thanked us infinitely for our advice” say Anne-Sophie Pasquino, 20, who studies law at in Mile End.
Pasquino is one of 120 student members of the Queen Mary University Pro-Bono Society, a student-led organisation that sees members devote their time to working with both UK-based and international pro-bono clinics.
“It’s always tough to hear about people’s sufferings, but also very rewarding to be able to help” adds Tereza Kamari, 19, who studies the same degree. “When I began university, I had no idea that I would be able to contribute to my new local area as much as I have the chance to. It’s really humbling.”
Since joining in 2018, Pasquino has helped give advice to enough clients that she has trouble giving a number. “My role is often to interview the clients when they first approach us, which means asking the client about their issue, and keeping a record of all the details of their case. Thereafter, I shadow the solicitors as they give legal guidance.”
Pro-bono, derived from Latin which means ‘work undertaken voluntarily without payment’, is something that the country’s leading law firms have committed to in order to help those that are not able to afford legal guidance.
“My favourite part of pro-bono work is being able to give others what should not be a privilege, help that should be an automatic human right” says Emily Green, 20, also a member of the society. “I’ve never had a client who wasn’t in complete distress. The clients that come to us truly have nowhere else to go, and are desperate.”
Kamari agrees, adding: “It is tough seeing so many people in really bad circumstances, but although it’s difficult and upsetting, you have to stay focused and strong while the client is visiting, and stay strong for them.”
Although the society also helps many clinics outside of Tower Hamlets, much of their work is channeled into helping the local area. As the borough is the 10th most deprived local authority in England, where four in 10 households live under the national poverty line (set at roughly £15,000 annually per household according to The Independent) on average, there is a need for free legal advice.
“The common issues that I have encountered [in Tower Hamlets] are disputes between landlords and tenants, issues with family and personal relationships, and employment contracts and conditions” says Kamari.
Clifford Chance, a law-firm located in Canary Wharf, is one of the many firms that the society have worked alongside. Tom Dunn, Pro Bono Director at Clifford Chance, says of their collaboration: “I have always been impressed by the commitment and organisation that the individual students and the society as a whole bring to their work with us. I think it is great that Queen Mary does so much to foster a pro bono ethos amongst its law students.”
When asked about common issues in the Borough, Pasquino adds: “Gentrification is also a massive issue. Many people who have grown up in East London are now being pushed out because rent is rising, and the living standards are decreasing”.
Gentrification is also one of many reasons that Tower Hamlets has become known to be a ‘borough of contrasts’, as described by The Guardian. On the one hand, the borough’s citizens average an annual salary of £58,000, the second highest in the country, while the reality also is that the rate of child poverty in Tower Hamlets is the highest in the UK.
On the other hand, gentrification has brought a lot of firms to the borough that take social responsibility. “If we ever do have to turn anyone away, we are always able to provide the client with a list of other possible pro-bono services that are available to them,” Kamari explains.
“At the end of the day, it is very obvious that there is a growing need for pro-bono in Tower Hamlets. I hope that the future sees more companies getting involved.”