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Another successful year in the Clinic

Tony Martin, Head of Clinics, reviews the year.
It is always a great pleasure to reflect on the year and consider the amazing work carried out across the legal advice clinics at BPP. The dedication of the student volunteers, the supervisors who give their time for free and the staff never ceases to amaze.

Demand for pro bono advice remains high: we received almost 2,000 enquiries throughout the year. The figures demonstrate both the amount of free advice we give and the breadth of the assistance.

We advised 408 clients. 

In total we recovered or obtained financial awards of £238,371.92 for our clients.

Our client satisfaction rate was 97.5%.

There were 366 student volunteers involved in the Clinic.

However, the figures tell only part of the story.

In the Enterprise clinic one client sought legal advice as to setting up a business to provide “financial (tax and investment) education to students in schools”. The letter of advice comprehensively addressed all the queries of the client and beyond. This included advising on business structure, trademark registrability and protecting the business’ confidential information through non-disclosure agreements. More importantly, the letter alerted the client as to the difference between providing financial guidance and financial advice services. The letter included an instructive comparative table highlighting the regulatory framework for financial guidance and financial advice services with respect to the type of service offered, responsibilities of the service provider, complaints, and compensation issues.

The client was “very satisfied” with the service and commented:
“I am really happy with the advice and guidance given by the student advisers, I now have a greater knowledge and broad understanding of the legal aspects of starting a business. I previously did not have much knowledge of the laws and regulations for providing a financial service, and now I feel well informed and know what next steps to take when starting my business. The Student advisers were also very helpful during the meeting, with asking key questions and understanding the business plan to give their specific advice”.

One of the cases in the Family Clinic where we both advised and represented was a transfer of tenancy application. The client had obtained a Non-Molestation Order in 2021, when she was represented by a firm of solicitors and had the benefit of legal aid. She continued to feel threatened by her ex-husband, the alleged perpetrator, so she applied for an Occupation Order to remove him from the family home.
The husband strenuously opposed the application and the court eventually granted a split Occupation Order with him ‘residing’ in one bedroom and her occupying the front room. The children slept in other rooms. The parties could only use the communal areas at certain times to avoid one another.
The client found the outcome completely unsatisfactory as she still felt at risk.
A domestic abuse charity contacted the clinic to ask whether we could assist the client. The clinic accepted the referral as at the time, transfer of tenancy applications were a fairly novel enquiry. Now they have become very commonplace.
The clinic assisted the client in drafting the correct application, supporting statement and other documents. We agreed to represent her subject to availability and resources. The matter was characterised by delays, lack of cooperation by the respondent ex-husband and adjournments which caused the client further distress and frustration.
All hearings were in person and relatively challenging. After a final hearing in August 2023, some 22 months after the split Occupation Order was granted, a judgment was made in the client’s favour which brought about much relief and emotion.

Another Family clinic client commented:
I am very grateful for the support/help from the clinic. I felt very confident every step of the process and attribute this to the level of professionalism.

In the Housing clinic one case was a costs case. Costs are a real concern for any litigant. The inability to afford legal costs is what drives litigants to seek pro bono advice and representation. However, whilst pro bono advice may be available, this does not protect a litigant against paying the other parties’ costs.
Our client was a pensioner who had represented herself in a service charge case that was transferred from the county court to the First-tier Tribunal (Property Chamber), which she had lost, and sought permission to appeal, which was refused. At some point she had been given informal advice that she did not need to worry about costs as the claim had been issued in the small claims track. Unfortunately, this advice was legally incorrect.
At short notice we represented our client at a case management hearing and obtained directions that the Claimants must file a statement of costs and that both parties should submit legal submissions and/or witness statements 4 weeks later.
The Claimant’s claim for costs was for £39,278.20 plus interest of 8%. We drafted detailed submissions addressing various points of dispute and prepared an open offer of settlement under Practice Direction 47 of the Civil Procedure Rules. The offer was for £17,152.52, which was the maximum reduction in the costs bill we considered to be achievable at a hearing if we were successful on every point of dispute. It is, however, unlikely that we would have been successful on every point at the disposal hearing, but shortly before the hearing the offer was accepted by the Claimant. This represented a 56.8% reduction in the costs to the relief of our client.

A different client commented on our service:
“Wow, thank you very much for your detailed and comprehensive advice and thank you as well, for getting it over to me so swiftly. I have submitted further comments to the Tribunal asking them to consider the points that you raised; I will let you know how I get on”.

In the Welfare Rights clinic the client we have assisted the most this year is a vulnerable male who experiences symptoms of PTSD and has lived with a chronic painful health condition since birth. In 2022 the DWP refused his claim for Personal Independence Payment. We assisted him to make a new claim for PIP, and to challenge the refusal. Following an appeal hearing in relation to the first decision, that the client was unable to attend, we have assisted him to make a set aside application. Following a mandatory reconsideration of the second refusal of the benefit, the DWP conceded he is entitled to the enhanced rate of the daily living component. After several months, we continue to await a hearing date for this client’s second appeal.

Another client commented:
“[The supervisor and student adviser] advised and assisted me with my case against the DWP, they made every effort to conduct research, gather evidence and present the information in a very legal and professional manner, I felt as though I were being assisted by a firm of solicitors… the quality of service is very high standard. The Welfare rights team led by Hannah is highly recommended.”

Students also benefited from their involvement in the Clinic:
Volunteering has been an invaluable experience. I have learned key communication skills from working with a variety of client. I have also developed my teamwork skills working with other student advisers. I have also practiced my legal research skills and gained an insight into a very wide-ranging area of law.

As always there were a number of changes in the clinics this year. Due to staffing changes we had to pause our general law clinic for a few months. We took the opportunity to relaunch it as a consumer law clinic under a new clinic manager. We hope that the name change will make it clearer to potential clients and referral agencies about the area of law covered in this clinic.

At the end of the year we said goodbye to our two trainee solicitors, Jessica Duxbury and Frankie Hall. Both have moved onto newly qualified solicitors roles in the legal profession. We started our trainee program in 2017 and we have successfully trained four solicitors to date (one of whom rejoined BPP to run our welfare rights clinic). Jessica and Frankie will be our last trainee solicitors, as the way in which solicitors train and qualify has changed. Next year we will employ 5 qualifying work experience trainees across the clinics.

Biennially we undergo an audit for the Advice Quality Standard (AQS), which we have held since 2015. To retain this, we must demonstrate that we are accessible, effectively managed, and employ staff with the skills and knowledge to meet the needs of our clients. We are one of only a few student based clinics to be awarded the AQS. We do not have to hold the award, but we strongly believe in independent auditing of our services. This year saw our fifth audit.

The Outcome Summary stated:
BPP University Legal Advice Clinic continues to provide valuable services which make a huge impact on its service users. A particular achievement is how the advice service has used the challenges presented when working through the coronavirus pandemic to introduce innovations in advice delivery, with Virtual Clinic appointments becoming a regular service, allowing BLAC to increase the geographical reach of the service for clients and volunteers and enhance the student learning experience. BLAC performed extremely well against the AQS Standard and this is testament to the commitment and dedication of the Staff and Volunteer. There were a good number of examples of good practice across the different areas of the Standard, no areas for improvement and no corrective actions noted during the assessment. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in the assessment process for their open and honest approach and for ensuring that the assessment timetable went smoothly.