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Twenty years of support for the world’s oldest free legal advice centre

This year marks the 20th anniversary of A&O’s partnership with Toynbee Hall and its free legal advice centre in London.

Based in Commercial Street beside A&O’s Bishops Square office, Toynbee Hall is one of London’s oldest and most prominent charitable organisations working to tackle poverty.

It was set up in 1884 by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, a vicar and teacher respectively. Their vision was to bring people together to tackle the extreme inequalities in London.

It was to be a place for future leaders to witness first-hand the poverty people lived in and work to develop practical solutions.

Many of the politicians who spent time at Toynbee Hall went on to bring about radical social change in Britain.

These include Clement Attlee and William Beveridge who introduced the welfare state and NHS after the Second World War. In fact, every post-war prime minister up to Gordon Brown has visited Toynbee.

It was also the place politician John Profumo dedicated 40 years of volunteering and fundraising to after leaving office during the notorious ‘Profumo Affair’ in 1963.

Toynbee Hall’s Free Legal Advice Centre

When Toynbee Hall opened its doors, the poverty in London’s East End was more extreme than almost anywhere in the country.

Today, the borough of Tower Hamlets still has some of the highest levels of inequality in the UK. There are 44% of people living in poverty.

“If anything, the needs of the local community are more complex than ever,” says Jasmine Ashley-Tagoe, who manages Toynbee’s Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC).

“Particularly as the cost of living crisis hits households that are already struggling with the impact of the pandemic.”

FLAC is the oldest continuously-running free legal advice centre in the world. As Jasmine says, it plays a vital role in the community.

The centre provides access to advice and public legal education on a broad range of issues from housing and employment to debt and civil litigation.

“Take the housing law clinic that A&O supports,” Jasmine says.

“Access to quality advice can mean the difference between a family becoming homeless because of an unlawful eviction. Or being able to maintain a roof over their heads while they find other options.

“The demand for housing, immigration and employment law advice, in particular, is huge right now. But with soaring energy bills and costs of living, unfortunately more and more people are falling into debt and households are collapsing. The need for debt advice and civil law advice are growing too.”

A&O’s partnership with Toynbee Hall

In 2021, despite continuing disruption from Covid-19 lockdowns, FLAC provided advice to nearly 1,000 people.

As one of the few centres that was already set up to service clients remotely, Toynbee was able to continue many of its advice clinics throughout the pandemic.

Each year, dozens of A&O lawyers volunteer at the clinic. Partners Sarah Henchoz and Maeve Hanna are both long-term volunteers.

“The support provided by the centre is invaluable,” Sarah says.

“Often the topics are deeply emotive for people – like the risk of losing their home. But as a volunteer you see the very real difference your advice makes.

“Sometimes the queries can be complex. But usually what clients need most is someone to listen, help make sense of unfamiliar legal documentation and steer them in the right direction.

Supporting Toynbee and assisting people who most need our help is a privilege and a great leveller in comparison to our day jobs.”

Maeve began volunteering at Toynbee Hall as an associate.

“I was so impressed with how well the trainee volunteers handled legal issues far removed from their day-to-day roles, and the impact their advice had on people’s lives.

“It made me want to become involved in a pro bono project with direct access to clients myself.”

Maeve is now the Legal Advice Clinics Supervisor, so oversees the work A&O does across all legal advice centres in London.

“What’s particularly striking about Toynbee is its proximity to our office. For me, it’s really important that we contribute to our local community and help those who live so close, yet can’t access legal advice in the same way as our fee-paying clients.

“It’s amazing the difference it makes to people just being able to talk through an issue and figure out a way forward,” Maeve says.

“Doing something simple that we take for granted, like writing a letter of complaint, is really powerful. Particularly as many of Toynbee’s clients don’t speak English as a first language.”

Adapting to the community’s growing needs

As well as its long-running evening clinics, the centre has grown in recent years to support the community. It now offers a specialist immigration advice clinic and London’s only face to face Women’s Clinic.

The clinic provides a service for vulnerable women who are struggling to access advice on legal issues for practical or cultural reasons.

“The opportunity to work specifically with women is what drew me to volunteer,” says associate Poppy Kevelighan. Poppy co-ordinates A&O’s volunteers at the Women's Clinic and has advised there for two years.

“Many of the women are experiencing incredibly difficult personal circumstances, such as domestic violence or mental or physical health issues.

“The clinic provides a place for them to be listened to and receive advice in a safe, female-only environment.

“A common issue women face is inappropriate housing. Whether because of disrepair, family size or disabilities, we can help to progress their cases with landlords or the local authority.

“Advising at clinics generally requires only a small time commitment but is hugely beneficial.

“The experience of researching legal issues and advising clients directly, plus the increased independence and responsibility, have built up my confidence personally and professionally, as well as my internal network,” Poppy says.

“But more than anything, it’s the empathy and patience you develop. We’re in such privileged positions as lawyers To be able to give something back to other women is incredibly rewarding. I would encourage anyone to do it.”

More need than ever

Over the past 20 years, A&O has donated over GBP320,000 to Toynbee’s Free Legal Advice Centre, and more to its broader work. The consistency of support over the years has been one of the most valuable aspects of the relationship, Jasmine says.

“I’ve worked with A&O volunteers for six years at Toynbee and have never seen a day missed. This is also down to the commitment of the PAs and others who work behind the scene to organise the volunteer rotas.

“I’m constantly amazed at the enthusiasm and empathy A&O volunteers bring, despite their hectic workloads. They never rush – they really listen to our clients and provide support that genuinely changes lives for people desperately in need.

”In a time of significant cuts to legal aid and closures of legal advice centres, there are fewer and fewer ways to access quality free legal advice, Jasmine says. Yet, more reasons than ever that people need it.

“We haven’t even seen the full impact of the Ukrainian refugee crisis here yet. We expect there will be an increased need for immigration and housing advice once people leaving Ukraine manage to navigate the visa process and arrive in Britain.

“Quite honestly, we wouldn’t be able to provide the levels of support the community needs without our volunteers,” Jasmine says.

“And it’s not only our local community. We never want to turn anyone away who needs help. This partnership, and all the support legal volunteers give us, enable us to do that for far more people.

“We always need and welcome more volunteers at Toynbee. But mostly, we just want to say a huge thank you to every person at A&O who has supported us in some way over the past 20 years.”