Advocate celebrates its 25th anniversary
Advocate celebrates its 25th anniversary
One of LegalEx’s charity partners, Advocate, is celebrating 25 years of barristers fighting for access to justice. From its humble beginnings in 1996, the charity has grown to have over 4,500 volunteer barristers and some big plans for the future.
Advocate was set up in a room in Gray’s Inn square by Peter Goldsmith QC, who recognized an important gap that people who were not entitled to legal aid were falling through. In the first year, 250 volunteer barristers helped on 350 pieces of work for members of the public. Since then, and especially as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, demand has grown exponentially and the response from barristers has been immensely generous.
In the space of one week in March 2020, Advocate went from being based in Chancery Lane in London and dealing with hard copy only papers to putting everything online, launching a web-based application form and finding software to enable e-bundling of documents for barristers and the courts.
As front-line advice and referral agencies closed down in the pandemic, there was a moment when it was not sure whether members of the public would be able to find and use its services (as applicants had preciously all come though referrals), but within a couple of months, the casework team was busier than ever (see box for profile). Fortunately, the response from barristers, who had been badly affected by court closures was to volunteer in greater numbers and take on more work than before, resulting in a record-breaking 1,412 pieces of work being undertaken in 2020.
This year, to celebrate 25 years of helping people find their way through the legal system, Advocate has launched a mentoring initiative called Collaborate, which pairs senior and junior barristers up so each can benefit from learning and teaching. It has also launched Young Bar Advocate, an opportunity for young barristers to join an executive committee to help plan the future of pro bono development for the next 25 years. And June sees the launch of the 25 hour pro bono challenge, aimed at encouraging barristers to commit to taking on 25 hours of pro bono over the next year through different schemes and in a variety of ways.
Details of all these initiatives can be found on their website http://www.weareadvocate.org.uk, along with barristers’ profiles and many very touching stories (like Daniel - see box) of how applicants have been helped to overcome some seemingly impossible circumstances.
Meet Caroline, an Advocate caseworker:
"People rely on Advocate to help them see their children, challenge unfair dismissals or discrimination at work and even to represent them at a loved one’s inquest. When lockdown hit, I was reminded of the importance of our work and the need for us to remain open and accessible.
Like everyone, our applicants have really struggled through this period and we’ve had to learn how to help them navigate legal proceedings and procedural hurdles whilst facing very real physical and mental health challenges. Fortunately, we’ve been able to increase our output and help more people than before. That said, demand for our help always exceeds what we can do and one of the most frustrating aspects of my job is telling someone that we haven’t been able to find a barrister to assist them.
I feel lucky to have spent the best part of two years in an organisation that enables me to work alongside vulnerable people and help them through some really challenging times. It’s been a privilege to be a part of an incredibly dedicated casework team who are determined to help our applicants as best we can. I’m really proud of how we have risen to the challenge as demand for our service has doubled over the past year.
As the casework team move to a new way of working, specialising in particular areas of law, I’m looking forward to being able to offer more assistance to our volunteer barristers, freeing up their time and ensuring that as many people as possible can benefit from our service."
Pensioner told he owed £14,000 in overpaid benefits: Daniel's story
Daniel is 73 and lives with his son who acts as his carer, supported by benefits. For two years, Croydon council issued multiple notices claiming that it had overpaid housing benefit and that Daniel owed them £14,000.
Suffering from cataracts that meant he could not read or write letters properly, so Daniel requested face-to-face meetings with the council, but they ignored him. Eventually, Daniel made a formal complaint to a Benefits Assessment Officer and the findings were sent to the wrong email address, leaving him with no conclusion and a lot of stress.
Daniel eventually appealed against the decision, but it was adjourned. He came to Advocate to help him find a barrister to unravel the mess and make sense of all the conflicting information. His barrister drafted an appeal asking the council to reconsider its approach to the overpayment and to recalculate it based on the correct figures and the law.
Daniel said: “At the second hearing they capitulated within three minutes, wrote off the debt, gave me back £6,000 and reinstated further benefits. Too late at 73 years of age, since I had already lost my home and both myself and son were homeless.
I feel as if I had been beaten up by this Local Authority. Without the help of Advocate and my barrister, who laid out my case in clear and concise date order, I would have been steamrollered. I believe this was the first time they understood the weakness of their own case. His insight was decisive.
The Local Authority have said they will help me find a new home, so at 73 years of age, I begin again.”