Interview with Julie Pinborough, Manager of QM’s award-winning Legal Advice Centre (LAC)
Congratulations, Julie! The Legal Advice Centre has been runner-up twice at the recent Attorney General Pro Bono Awards and you’ve also been shortlisted in the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management 2013 Awards.
Yes, I was really pleased with the Legal Advice Centre (LAC) being runner-up in the Best Activity category for our 'supporting those who serve' project for people in the armed forces, as well as coming second for Best Contribution by a Law School. We’ve won several other categories over the years in these awards, but the ultimate achievement would inevitably be for us to win the Best Contribution by a Law School, by our tenth anniversary – if not before. The Times Higher Awards are announced on the Sunday 30 June, so watch this space.
Can you tell me more about what the LAC does?
The LAC provides free (pro bono) legal advice to members of the public, students and university staff. It was established in 2006 and operates for the benefit of both clients and students. We are particularly committed to enabling students to learn from practical experience. We advise clients on their legal position and what steps to take next. We don’t undertake casework or representation for them, but we do act as a referral agency to other free legal advice providers who are able to offer these services.
Enquiries are dealt with on a case-by-case basis and an assessment is made as to whether we can assist the client further. Once a case has been accepted, an appointment is made when the client will come to see us with all the necessary documentation relating to their legal issue. Advice is not provided on the night of the appointment; the client's advising team will spend time researching the legal issues and all possible options.
How many people work for the LAC and what kind of cases do you work on?
We have over 70 students involved and more than 100 top City lawyers volunteering their free time and professional skills. We also have a team of 15 support students who help with the general running of the Centre – from administration, PR and social media to running the reception desk.
Twice a week – on a Tuesday and Thursday – we operate appointments with clients, who each have a 45-minute slot. Last year, we dealt with over 240 cases and had 3,000 enquiries from all over the world, including Canada, Australia, USA and Africa. Cases ranged from Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) discrimination, medical negligence, immigration and visa issues, employment discrimination and criminal offences.
Every solicitor is a volunteer, which is unique to higher education law centres – other universities employ solicitors on a wage. The benefits of this are that our students have the opportunity to work within the profession, as well as build links.
How do you think government plans to cut legal aid funding will impact on the LAC?
I don’t think the consequences have been thoroughly thought out, especially in the current climate where many law centres across the country either have been closed down or have had their funding reduced. The cuts, along with the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, will increasingly require the role of pro bono to deliver less high-quality, bespoke services, replacing them with services that, by demand, will be required to focus on quantity and addressing the collective gap which has been created. We've seen a dramatic surge in the number of client enquiries already, and it is inevitable that the number will increase again after April.
Access to justice is a fundamental right and pro bono should not be relied upon to substitute cut services; instead, it should remain a vehicle of voluntary independence that complements existing systems rather being a necessity within them. The Centre is in a strong position to utilise its resources to ensure that those who fall into the void between services have access to one of the most basic rights within our democratic system.
When did you start working at the LAC?
I came to QM when I started my first degree in English Literature and History. I initially began it at Keele University but I missed London and so transferred happily to QM and graduated in 1998. A few years later, I started my Law degree here, which I finished in 2006. Almost immediately, I began working on the development of the Centre.
How come you chose to do two quite different degrees at QM?
I left school with very few qualifications but when I was older, I really wanted to further my knowledge and love of literature. I’m passionate about history and books – I didn’t study my first degree as a career choice. I was a mature student when I came into higher education and before studying I had had a varied career in logistics – the importing and exporting industry – and was also a fundraising and retail manager for Cancer Research UK. When I chose to study law, I wanted a complete career change and law was a subject I wanted to understand more, potentially with the aim to work within it.
You were instrumental in setting up the LAC weren’t you? Tell us more.
I started my law degree thinking I wanted to be a lawyer and I was offered a training contract with Field Fisher Waterhouse at the end of my studies, but I ended up going straight from graduation to setting up the LAC in 2006. In my second year as a student, I set up QM’s first Pro Bono Society with a fellow student. It was a good way of demonstrating how a legal advice centre could benefit students and staff alike. At my graduation, the then Head of the Department of Law, Professor William Wilson, asked me to set up the LAC – I’ve never looked back.
What is so special about working at the LAC?
Two things: the students, and knowing that we are helping clients who would otherwise find it difficult to get legal assistance. Both are just as rewarding as the other, but the students certainly do bring a great deal of enjoyment to the Centre.
What is the most common reason people come to you for advice?
The highest demand for assistance is generally in employment, immigration or landlord and tenant problems. I think this is partly due to a number of immigration advice centres in London having closed down because of funding cuts. Landlord and tenant issues will always be high because of the large number of private landlords renting out properties in the area. Employment enquiries have seen an increase because of the current financial market and the rise in redundancies.
What have been the most interesting cases you have worked on?
We had an LGBT asylum seeker from Uzbekistan whose life was threatened if he returned to his country. He took his case to an Immigration Tribunal Appeal, after the judge at the original hearing told him to “just go home and hide it”. At the appeal, the case was supported by a volunteer solicitor and volunteer barrister from our Pink Law project. The emotional torture the client had to go through was very sad and it was a very moving journey for all of those involved in the case. The lengths that many gay asylum seekers have to go through to prove they are gay can be terribly demoralising. The appeal was successful and the next day the Supreme Court made a decision that supported the appeal.
We also had a Canadian couple contact us. They had a civil partnership in the UK and returned to Canada happily married; a few years later they made the decision to end the relationship. They then had to prove that the civil partnership was valid in Canada. The Canadian Attorney General said the UK civil partnership was not intended to be equivalent to marriage so the case was elevated to the Supreme Court. Our client contacted us from Canada and we managed to find a pro bono solicitor for him. This resulted in the solicitor becoming an expert witness at the Canadian Supreme Court, giving evidence by video link to prove that it was in fact valid. The Supreme Court held in favour of the client and the solicitor who worked alongside us. We were pleased that we had been part of the process, both for the client and the decision made by a Supreme Court in another jurisdiction.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
What I love most about the job is that we can help the average person in the community. I’m interested in helping people who find the legal system daunting or inaccessible – who without free legal advice, wouldn’t know where to start to sort out a legal problem.
I also get a great sense of satisfaction in seeing the students I work with developing as individuals. They often come to us a little unsure of themselves, lacking in their practical understanding of the law and with low self-confidence. After a few months, I start to see them blossom and they grow up before me. Seeing them secure the jobs or training contracts of their dreams is so rewarding When I get a thank you from a client or student, I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile. I really do love my job; I work with a great team and get bought lots of chocolates – what more could a girl want!
What are the future plans for the LAC?
We are working on our strategic plan at the moment and our long-term aim is to be able to provide more opportunities for our students, along with more transferable skills and increased facilities.
For me personally, I am currently studying with the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) to specialise in probate and conveyancing. We have seen an increasing demand in this area from clients, so I wanted to extend my qualifications in order to be able to help our clients more.
Tell me more about the book you’re writing.
I started writing a book last year and it’s now in its second edit. It’s a fictional novel set in the East End of London involving the criminal world, academia and the legal profession – with a bit of diamond smuggling added in to make it more exciting. I can’t tell you any more than that and I don’t know if I will put my name to it, but I’ve had a lot of fun writing it.
You sound like you have little time left for relaxing after working, studying and writing your book?
Work and studying definitely keeps me busy but two of my great loves are London and photography, so at weekends I like to combine the two, taking pictures of my favourite places, such as Tower Bridge and all around the River Thames. I love the City’s history, the little hidden lanes that are hard to find and the architecture. London is an incredible city and if I had the time, I would spend more time discovering new things about it