Pro Bono Week 2016
By Lorna Baldry
This is a great year, where reflection and planning merge for me. I’m looking back and reflecting on 28 years working experience and as Brightlink prepares to celebrate its 1st incorporation birthday on Christmas Eve, I’m looking forward to planning those new projects and experiences for which I jumped into running my own company.
When I was a law student it was a consistent message, which resonated strongly with me that not everyone is fortunate enough to enjoy opportunity in life and few of us find ourselves in the enviable position of a whole lifetime without experiencing difficulty. It’s a stark fact that in the UK some are denied the chance to follow their study or employment dreams and aspirations by poverty, violence, control or other difficult circumstances.
It’s an obligation for anyone who works in law in any context to champion inclusion and justice regardless of income, education or personal situation. I would argue it’s an obligation for anyone whatever they do. Of course, that doesn’t mean there is any obligation on legal professionals or anyone else to give their time free of charge to meet the obligations which more appropriately belong to government. Pro bono work cannot and should not take the place of the aid which should be available to ensure justice provided by government.
I wasn’t in a position to explore and act on the obligation I felt until, in 2012 it became my job to help people who experienced barriers to engagement in general and particular in relation to learning and employment. This meant I could justifiably research, design and develop a pro bono programme using the resources a large inner city college had to offer, to raise awareness of and tackle the problems that its learners and the communities it served face on a day to day basis.
A further education learning population of around 25,000 is a fair representation, a microcosm of a community. Within that population, inner City problems were typical just as they would be in the wider community. Basic human needs, food, shelter, the company of others, safety, clothing, were all barriers to learning within the college in question as they are in many of our schools, colleges and universities. This of course leads to a self-perpetuating cycle as barriers to learning are barriers to long term, fulfilling, rewarding employment.
For me a pro bono project needed to show law students their obligation to community service as well as giving them experience and life chances. It also had to engage learners on a wider spectrum and it had to be really purposeful to the community it served.
It was obvious to me, after some challenging but wonderful experiences of multi-agency consortia, that this working model was the way to achieve all the goals I had set for my pro bono project. I was unaware, in fact I discovered that many people are unaware, of the extent of the poverty in our immediate surroundings and the impact that socio economic factors have on learning. Awareness raising was as critical as providing direct advice and assistance and you need people who have this insight and daily experience to help and support with this.
My law students, in the meantime were struggling to experience a variety of legal sector work. They were working full time, had families and were studying and often were trying to showcase their range of skills and knowledge and to experience a number of different areas of legal work. Other students within other departments were facing similar limitations, they needed a chance to gain experience and to show what they could do. In many cases it was all that stood between them and work or progression within work.
It is, of course also critical within the further education sector that a pro bono endeavour is either completely cost neutral or very low cost. My line management at that time were brave and passionate about making a difference too and they invested my time in creating something meaningful. Of course this wasn’t just my project, as much as it might feel like a child I nurtured. It couldn’t have happened without volunteers, employers, students and a supportive awarding body.
The form and subject matter of the pro bono clinic I launched in pro bono week 2012 was the result of research into what was needed. I asked learners and staff about the kinds of problems they encountered that they would like more advice and support to overcome, leaving them free to concentrate on study and work. I heard about forced marriages and the impact of them on the lives of young female learners. The story of a young woman and her two year old child with nowhere to sleep after Bailiffs took everything from their home, including their beds. I heard about the devastating impact of domestic violence and the exacerbated feeling of helplessness for the victims who couldn’t afford to seek advice. The woman who lost all of her benefits and walked two hours to college each day and two hours home again each day because despite poverty it was important to her to set an example for her two children.
Learners encounter many barriers which can dissuade them or totally prevent them from pursuing education, particularly family issues, difficulties in employment or with housing and benefits. The start of an academic year, particularly, poses issues for many around benefits eligibility and ensuring things like housing benefit are in place. Student services departments provide learners with financial support, counselling and other valuable support. Advice, guidance and the confidence to question the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, empowers learners to help themselves. Many learners return to college having left employment feeling they missed out on maternity pay or redundancy entitlement based on when they had to start at college. Student finance departments often encounter those who do not fully understand the Tax Credit system, and those who have not applied for tax credits, but would be eligible. Advice for all of this can be exactly what is needed to enable learners to stay on track with education and achieve their goals, with the potential and tools to give them and their families a better way of life.
In the City I was establishing my pro bono clinic, many learners arrive in the UK with young families, sometimes with a spouse, often alone as migrants. They may bring children who were born overseas and may then have children in the UK, so there are complicated issues around family life. This obviously has an impact on their ability to concentrate fully and commit to a course of study.
In our day and age most inner city colleges will face the same issues and more rural communities will face some of these and some different challenges too. Of course reduction in funding for legal advice and support exacerbates all these issues.
An advice clinic tackling the right areas of law for a particular community can improve retention and results, make links with employers and professionals in general, make links with universities, provide sector leading practice, placements for staff CPD and can transform the lives of learners.
Learners can benefit from an extra level of support, a whole life service, free advice and assistance, experience, work placements and references.
With a year’s pilot under my belt and some great connections and lessons learned I’m inspired to take this learning across the UK and support other places to develop their model of multi-agency, cross sector pro bono work within further education. I plan to do this beginning in 2016 and beyond. The work done has kindly been described as ground breaking, unlike any other anywhere in the world with focuses which have not been featured in any previous project.
If you’d like more information please get in touch.