London Churches giving Legal Advice
Starting in 1997, Peter and one volunteer assistant engaged in 90 cases in their first year. Today they handle about 500 cases per annum. On Mondays and Tuesdays they provide the same service with one adviser and one assistant. On Saturday mornings, however, the session is longer and much busier and additional support is provided by two legal advisers and four law students.
The way the Centre operates at St James Muswell Hill is via an open drop-in service starting at 9.30am on Saturday mornings and at 10am on Mondays and Tuesdays through to 12 noon.
Their capacity is 10 cases in a morning session and averaging out to 25 a week of which 10 are new cases. The other 15 have ongoing problems that require more than one attendance. Peter comments that;
“Our aim is never to turn anyone away for lack of time.”
To start up Peter found that they needed a basic minimum of one legal adviser and, ideally, an assistant who ensured that the welcome was there as well as to take notes at the interview and, more recently, to access the Internet.
“As you can see in the video,” Peter points out, “the office is simply table and chairs in our side chapel and a card-box that takes cards 8” by 5” for recording contact details, the problem posed and the advice given. It doesn’t take that much to get started.”
The team found that the customers enjoyed the calm of a church environment mixed with a desire not to be overheard, so attention had to be paid to where they positioned themselves in order to provide privacy and confidentiality.
An adviser need not be a practising lawyer or even to have been a practising solicitor or barrister in the past. Many lawyers work in-house with a variety of institutions including commercial business, charities and government agencies. But while still at work they are not available to give advice pro bono publico, except at weekends.
Two areas that potential providers of this service need to be aware of is: 1) the giving of immigration advice is regulated: only qualified immigration advisers can give it; and 2) you are not legally required to take out Professional Indemnity Insurance, unless you give immigration advice, but there is a general expectation that the adviser will be insured. Peter has insured himself for the past 20 years at a cost of £500 a per annum. “I have never had a claim yet.”
Peter is passionate about the expansion of this service through the churches in London;
“Every congregation must have a number of retired lawyers who could do what we do, they have time on their hands and need to keep exercising their legal brains! But they need to get over the initial anxiety that they won’t know the answers. They are wrong: the answers are generally obvious to anyone with legal training but if not the adviser can promise to look them up.”
To know more about how you could establish such a Centre at your church please email Peter on the below link.
Anyone wanting to see the Centre in action at St James is welcome to sit in on a session as an observer (if the customer agrees) and Peter is willing to travel anywhere in the Diocese to meet and talk to anyone who is interested in setting up some sort of advice bureau, clinic or legal advice centre.