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High street firms continue to put moral obligation before expenses in pro bono work

Written by
Naga Kandiah and Samir Pasha
Date of Publication:
29 April 2021

Pro bono work has always garnered serious attention, but more so since the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic lockdown, clients who were already vulnerable were having to endure harsher circumstances due to either not being able to work, leave their home, or engage with the outside world. For some, their situation has been miserable and dire, unable to make ends meet, let alone approach solicitors for assistance. Amidst this misery, pro bono assistance has never been more needed than before, and small high street firms have continued to persevere in providing such assistance despite the pressures of costs, lockdown effects and legal aid cuts. High street firms are commonly small in size, income, resources and operations. This is in contrast to larger firms like national outfits, who may cover the same practice areas as high street firms, but their resources and revenue are on a much larger scale. Despite their lack of resources and size, high street firms, and particularly younger solicitors, have continued to provide pro bono assistance as it reflects a professional and ethical obligation, whereas larger, City firms would least likely agree with such an obligation. [1] Pro bono work has covered not only straightforward representation of a person in a legal matter, but also unravelling negligent or poor previous representation.

The following case examples give an insight into some of the types of pro bono assistance carried out in the last month by us [2] – a small high street firm, demonstrating the vital importance to protecting some of the most vulnerable in our community. It is important that legal representation is competent in dealing with vulnerable clients, and most often small firms are much more exposed to dealing with such client. Our firm, like other such firms, has continued take on the responsibility of looking after our local community during this difficult time.

Case 1

Victim of Domestic Violence; Ms Rani - was a victim of domestic violence when in 2015 her husband beat her and their 10 year old daughter. She ran to the police station with her daughter, she was on a dependent visa during this time, a legal advisor told her that she should claim asylum which she did so. Police charged the husband, and was eventually only convicted to 2 weeks' imprisonment. She was then approached by another solicitors' firm, after she had lost her home and been thrown out by the husband, they took £1,500, which came from selling her jewellery, and gave her misleading advice, telling her that if she did not reconcile with her convicted husband she would be detained and sent back to her home country. The solicitors then withdrew her asylum claim and fabricated a narrative to the Home Office stating that she had reconciled with her husband. Not only was this untrue, but also Ms Rani did not know what was exactly going on due to language barriers. Her local church provided her with assistance such as food and accommodation. The local community has for the last 5 years continued to support her. Within these years she has attempted suicide at least twice. During the COVID pandemic, one of the charities approached us and asked if we could help her. Once we took on the case, a Subject Access Request was made and we reviewed all of her papers. It was clear that she was previously being misrepresented, she also did not have any money left, which meant that we had to make the decision to take this case on pro bono basis. 6 years after her domestic violence horror at the hands of a British citizen, she has now been granted ILR under domestic violence route.

Case 2

Victim of Rape, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery: Ms Omar - A single mother, previously granted discretionary leave to remain, relying solely on benefits. She had no paperwork or documents. She was trafficked into the country by her aunt, violently abused by her relatives and kept in conditions of modern slavery. We took her immigration matter on a pro bono basis. Before doing we checked her bank statements and found she was in debt every month. This was difficult particularly because she had to feed her child somehow. Being able to deal with her immigration matter on a pro bono basis means she can focus on obtaining assistance to survive and meet her and her child's essential needs.

Case 3

Entry clearance, breaking of a family with British-born mother and baby: Ms Russell - Went to Nigeria and met her husband, and came back to the UK and gave birth to their child in the UK. She has a medical condition and is therefore on disability benefits. We reviewed her bank statements and found she had no money at all, and was also borrowing money every month from family and friends in order to feed her child. We took on her husband's entry clearance application on a pro bono basis, in order so her family can live together and have a better life.

Case 4

Indian international student: Mr Patel - A student from India had to self-isolate due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as a result he was 8 days late in making his tuition fee payment [3]. The university terminated his student contract and kicked him out. As a result he became suicidal and left hopeless. He made the tuition payment, and was then informed of the university's decision. He had no money left and was not eligible for legal aid. He was left vulnerable and in limbo. We again exercised our ethical obligation to assist him in his difficult time on a pro bono basis. This is because as a high street firm, whilst having small resources, are on the ground where we are exposed to some of the harsh realities faced by some humans. Unlike larger firms, we cannot simply turn the other way and ignore them because we are on the grass-roots level.

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[1] Webley, Lisa (2000) Pro bono and Young Solicitors: Views from the Front Line. Legal Ethics, 3 (2). pp. 152-168. ISSN 1757-8450. Harvard; Vancouver, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/9831091.pdf, p12

[2] Names have been changed for anonimty

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/apr/14/university-threatened-with-legal-action-from-indian-student-facing-deportation