“We have a justice gap that excludes many individuals from accessing the legal support they require” Pro Bono Week Volunteer Profile
Aoife O’Reilly provides Pro Bono advice at the Free Legal Advice Center as a Toynbee Hall volunteer. She’s part of the Allen and Overy LLP team who have supported access to justice in East London with FLAC for over a decade. As part of Pro Bono Week she speaks to us about her experiences at FLAC and the value of Pro Bono.
Since 1898, Toynbee Hall’s Free Legal Advice Centre has been powered by pro bono volunteers giving up their time to provide free, expert legal advice. Each year it means 100s of people across London who would otherwise be unable to afford support get the help they need to exercise their rights. Over the last 12 months alone, 2250 hours of Pro Bono advice were provided to people across London at FLAC. At a time of growing demand for legal support, the support of these volunteers is more important than ever. We want to take the opportunity during Pro Bono Week 2020 to celebrate the achievements of some of our most dedicated Pro Bono volunteers..
Aoife is key part of the Allen and Overy LLP (A&O) team who volunteer across several FLAC clinics. She’s been with us for 3 years, firstly volunteering at our Housing and Consumer Clinic on Thursdays and then at our Saturday Women-Only clinic. She now also helps coordinate the wider A&O volunteering effort at that clinic, which she helped set up with her colleagues and expand with additional pro bono capacity. As well as helping us to provide support to more people locally, Aoife is also a fantastic volunteer advisor. Her ability to combine accessible legal expertise with a sensitive understanding of the wider context of people’s lives has helped countless people in our community tackle the challenges they face.
Aoife has kindly given her time to share her experience of FLAC and her views of the value Pro Bono both for legal professionals and for communities like ours in East London
What volunteering roles do you both have at FLAC and how long have you been doing it?
I volunteer as a legal adviser at the FLAC Women’s Clinic and also help to coordinate A&O’s pro bono contribution to this clinic. Before that, I volunteered at the housing and consumer Thursday clinic. All told, I’ve been volunteering as a legal adviser with FLAC for almost three years.
“I feel a responsibility to use my legal knowledge to help people understand their legal rights and navigate the options open to them as best I can.”
Why do you volunteer at FLAC and why do you think Pro Bono volunteering is important?
I volunteer at FLAC because I think it is important to give back to the community that I live and work in. I am aware that my legal training allows me to understand more easily the often complex legal frameworks that FLAC’s clients find themselves caught up in, and I feel a responsibility to use my legal knowledge to help people understand their legal rights and navigate the options open to them as best I can.
In an ideal world, the legal aid system would ensure that every individual had access to the quality legal advice they need, and we’d think about funding legal services in the way we think about funding the wonderful NHS (given that legal issues often have a really serious knock on effect on clients’ welfare more generally). However, in reality we have a justice gap that excludes many individuals from accessing the legal support they require. This means that the legal community must attempt to bridge this justice gap by providing pro bono support where necessary.
I always feel proud when I know that a client has left the clinic knowing that she has been listened to and that she has taken positive steps towards dealing with her legal issues.
Is there a success you’ve had for a client that you’re particularly proud of? If so, how did you help the client and what outcome did you have?
Every time I volunteer as an adviser and help a client to understand her legal rights or help her to advocate her position to her landlord or the local council, for example, I consider that a success and feel very proud. The nature of giving once-off free legal advice is that you may not find out whether the client succeeds with her legal issue. However, I always feel proud when I know that a client has left the clinic knowing that she has been listened to and that she has taken positive steps towards dealing with her legal issues. Being able to help clients to feel empowered to address their legal situations is really rewarding.
What’s your favourite part of volunteering at FLAC?
It is definitely the people! The great thing about volunteering at FLAC is that it inevitably means that you meet a whole range of different people. The legal staff and volunteers (led by Jasmine) are lovely to work with and so passionate about what they do. I also really enjoy meeting and interacting with the clients, and getting to see things from their perspective. Finally, volunteering pro bono with FLAC has meant that I’ve been able to get know my A&O colleagues who also volunteer with FLAC very well. This has been a real bonus for me, as it is lovely to be able to meet and work with like-minded colleagues at FLAC, and see the impact that the A&O team’s pro bono work can have.
From your experience, if you could change one thing to improve access to justice for people in the communities FLAC serves, what would it be?
I would expand the types of legal issues that come within the scope of legal aid. The legal issues that found themselves outside the scope of legal aid after the cuts implemented by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 were certainly not trivial, and meant that the most vulnerable and socioeconomically disadvantaged people were no longer entitled to access free legal advice when they faced legal issues relating to their welfare benefits, employment status and housing, to name but a few. A fundamental re-think of these cuts would do a huge amount to improve access to justice to those FLAC serves.