University House is one of the longest established legal advice agencies in London. It was established in 1941 in the centre of London’s East End as part of the University Settlement movement which brought middle class students into working class areas to provide assistance and support.
The Legal Advice Centre began part-time, originally to advise on war-damage claims, managing donations and small change left in Poor Boxes in courts. By the end of the war it had gone full-time to meet the demand for general legal advice.
When the University Settlements wound up in 1979, the Centre became an independent charity. Today it is based in Roman Road, Bethnal Green, an area where the largest section of the population (over a third) is Bangladeshi.
The centre is contacted by up to 5,000 people each year with their diversity reflecting the surrounding . community. Help provided ranges from writing letters to arranging representation. Advice provided is by telephone, during drop-in sessions and through an appointments system.
The centre also operates a number of outreach projects – notably in co-ordination with projects based in Cornwall which depend on pro bono assistance and video connections.
In June 2020, we went ‘live’ with our Advice Portal in the London Boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham. Our experience at providing remote advice was at the heart of its development. The portal is principally aimed at supporting generalist advice agencies to undertake specialist legal casework. Users must register to access the portal. This allows us to target the portal where it is needed most. To date, the portal has been very well received, and we have attracted significant funding for this project from a variety of sources.
Our work focus is on the most vulnerable, and a great deal of our casework is on behalf of people who have complex health and social needs. It is therefore important to us that technology we use does not add to barriers that they face. We embrace the use of new technology but in a way that is very mindful of the realities of peoples’ lives. Our view on the use of technology is to use it to provide access to specialist lawyers, rather than in lieu of them.
Our ‘advice portal’ is linked to our webcam platform and, in part, includes an electronic booking system aimed at targeted community advice agencies and other key stakeholders. From the 22nd June 2020, each week, ‘advice slots’ on critical legal matters have been made available. It is entirely up to the target local advice networks who, amongst their number, books places on the available slots.
Advice workers can book an appointment to seek support from us to progress a case themselves, or they can make a referral by appointment for us to advise someone directly.
A big issue for our sector is a lack of second-tier support, and an inability to access specialist legal support and casework services. Our portal provides access and ownership to community advice workers. This is a radical model which aims to define a new model of advice and advocacy provision during these challenging times.
Through the portal, community advice workers are also able to access self-help information and professional development support.
From the 22nd June 2020, we have made large numbers of appointments available each week in four critical support areas: welfare benefits (appeals), Covid-19 related employment law matters, domestic violence (including non-molestation orders), and possession proceedings/homelessness. We monitor take-up, and provided we have the capacity, we release further appointment slots if necessary.
From the 21st September 2020, we plan to provide access to the portal to every relevant advice and advocacy organisation in Cornwall and Devon. This is our way of seeking to help provide access to justice for as many people as possible in the advice deserts of the West Country. The portal covers critical areas of law mirroring the issues covered by our London based advice clinics/projects, which we run in partnership with corporate law firms. This means that cases booked through our portal will, in part, be fed through to our existing London based clinics/projects.
There are opportunities here for existing partners to assist us in an additional area of law. There are also opportunities for new partners to develop secondary specialism.
Whilst we all hope that Covid-19 will be temporary problem, its impact is likely to be long-lasting. One such impact means that all our London based clinics will, for the near future, be blended. This means that during the same clinic session, some of the users will be seen face to face, whilst others will be supported by webcam or telephone (their choice). We know some of our corporate partners are back in the office, whilst others will not be before 2021. By adopting this ‘blended’ clinics model, it means we do not have to wait for all our clinic partners to be ready to return to face to face at the same time. We have produced an updated risk assessment and are happy to discuss this new blended clinic model when you are ready. Presently, we are operating out of two offices in Bethnal Green, and our offices are open 5 days a week.
University House Fellows
This week we are welcoming our first new Fellows. The Fellows, six in total, will be undertaking solicitor apprenticeships in partnership with BPP. This is based on the new non academic study pathways to becoming a solicitor. We have employed four directly, and we are supporting the other two remotely. This initiative is linked to our Advice Portal, and both projects are part of our efforts to help address the skills shortage in our sector. In addition to training as solicitors, the Fellows will also undertake projects which focus on access to justice issues. We want to thank several corporate partners for helping to make this possible through their donations of Apprenticeship Levy.