Legal aid firm in London’s hipster hub puts City giants in shade to bag pro bono prize

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By Katie King on

Dalston pro bono clinic advised nearly 500 clients this year


A legal aid firm located in the heart of London’s hipster district has beaten off competition from corporate law giants to bag the ‘Best Contribution by a Firm with a London Head Office’ prize at a prestigious pro bono awards.

While big names like DLA Piper and Allen & Overy dominated the winners’ list, it was plucky Duncan Lewis that secured arguably the most prestigious gong at the LawWorks Annual Pro Bono Awards.

A pro bono clinic set up by the Dalston-based firm in 2009 was what won it. Open every Tuesday, the clinic provides clients with free advice on, for example, housing and immigration issues. This year, 464 clients in east London have been helped by the service.

Duncan Lewis, which has another 32 offices dotted around London and the UK, was also recognised for helping out the student-run University of East London pro bono clinic, and running a number of free advice surgeries at charities such as Shelter Hackney.

It’s indisputable that legal aid firms have taken a big hit under the post-2008 crisis government. Access to justice funding in key practice areas such as crime and family has diminished and eligibility criteria tightened, leaving many would-be clients out in the cold.

The sector has been put under intense strain and, with that, it is both impressive and somewhat puzzling that a legal aid firm like Duncan Lewis — even if it is no minnow — has managed to make such headway in its pro bono initiatives.

Legal Cheek caught up with Emine Mehmet, solicitor and chair of the pro bono committee at Duncan Lewis, to find out how the firm has managed to excel in this way.

There’s no denying that the cuts made by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling have drastically altered the legal environment, but Mehmet stresses that it’s not just the law firms that have lost out. She explains:

Legal aid cuts have affected not only legal aid law firms, but of course those who simply can not afford to pay for legal advice and are no longer eligible for legal aid.

Mehmet feels that it is the firm’s duty, in the wake of these brutal welfare cuts, to offer free advice to those who cannot otherwise access it, adding:

[A]lthough it is difficult at times to maintain the pro bono work in a legal aid firm, as the biggest legal aid provider our view is that we have a duty to provide the service. It is of course testament to the commitment and hard work of our volunteers who willingly give up their own time that we are able to sustain it.

Debate has stirred about whether, at a time where access to justice funds are so slim, it’s time for lawyers to step up to the plate and do more free work. Duncan Lewis seems to have risen to this challenge. Mehmet goes on:

With legal aid cuts pro bono advice is often the only recourse that sometimes very vulnerable clients will have and we are proud of the recognition of our part in ensuring those clients still have access to legal advice.

The team no doubt has some impressive achievements under its belt. When asked if there are any case studies Duncan Lewis is particularly proud of, Mehmet told us:

One of our volunteers represented a single working mother in possession proceedings for rent arrears, in respect of her only and principal home. The client had a daughter in her final GCSE year at school who was suffering from a mental health condition and the landlord wanted an outright order for possession against them our advisor liaised with the landlord and when they refused to agree to adjourn the proceedings we attended the court hearing and successfully defended the claim for possession thus the client was able to keep her home.

The team are delighted to have had their hard work recognised, particularly by an organisation like LawWorks, and is showing no signs of slowing down: they will be heading off to Calais early next year to provide general aid and advice clinics where needed.