Doing your bit: Supporting the vulnerable through pro bono

Caroline Sorbier
Caroline SorbierBody & Soul

The pro bono advice given by solicitors provides essential support to some of the most vulnerable and stigmatised in society. Caroline Sorbier explains how it helps in one charity Body & Soul, which supports those living with or affected by HIV.

Body and soul office
Photograph: LisaBretherick

National Pro Bono Week, running this year from 7 to 11 November, provides an opportunity for the legal profession to celebrate and strengthen its commitment to undertaking legal work for free pro bono publico ('for the public good' in Latin).

For the charities and other organisations who benefit from this commitment, this week is an excellent opportunity for us to thank the legal professionals who already work with us, and to reach out to others. With the help of the National Pro Bono Centre, we hope we can offer more of the kind of expert legal advice that can have a real impact on people's lives.

Body & Soul is the UK’s leading organisation supporting children, young people and families living with or closely affected by HIV. Our aim is to be a home for members where they can access the resources necessary to deal with the everyday challenges that HIV sets before them.

Pro bono legal advice is a core element of the comprehensive range of services we provide to people living with HIV. They often need advice on their benefits and provision of housing, legal aid and health services following the raft of recent reforms: criteria for eligibility are often complex, the language used by the Department for Work and Pensions confusing, and appealing decisions intimidating.

People living with HIV are also often subject to stigma and discrimination, and find it difficult to advocate for themselves. Add to this the closure of some legal services and the introduction of a cap on referrals to others, and legal advice clinics like those run by Body & Soul are essential for many of those living with HIV, and their families.

Three legal clinics take place each month: Miles & Partners run the housing clinic; Wilsons the immigration clinic; and Hogan Lovells the general legal clinic, which covers areas such as benefits, criminal law, debt and community care law.

Hogan Lovells has developed for us a legal clinic manual to give any solicitor working in our clinics – regardless of area of expertise – the information they need to help with issues involving debt, housing, family law and benefits law. Over the past year, these legal clinics have provided 3,245 minutes of one-to-one consultations, and supported 79 individuals. We also delivered a range of group workshops on legal themes, including HIV disclosure and immigration.

One-to-one appointments are offered to members in need of more complex legal advice. The cases are prepared ahead of time by our team of caseworkers, and sent to the solicitor, so that the advice can be formulated and then explained to the member in the most effective way. This close collaboration is crucial: we aim to ensure that, from preparation to follow-up, our members receive the best support possible from both caseworker and solicitor.

One of our members, Paul, had his personal independence payment stopped recently. Many of our members have had the same experience, as there is a growing misperception that living with HIV is not a big deal, because of medical advances in managing the virus. As a result, issues such as adherence to medication, mental health, chronic pain and other hidden complications are disregarded in benefits applications.

Meeting a solicitor to prepare his appeal helped Paul to understand the specific health conditions that would be taken into consideration during the appeals process. He prepared his bundle with the help of a caseworker on the basis of the solicitor’s advice. He won his case – as did the other two members who have, in the last three months, appealed the halting of their benefits, with the support of legal advice from our pro bono team.

We would like to thank all the solicitors who give so generously of their time and expertise to our legal clinics and workshops – we simply couldn’t provide this kind of support to our members without them. And we know how much this support means to our members: 89 per cent felt they had a better practical support network as a result of coming to Body & Soul.

We are always looking for more volunteers to take on benefits, family and immigration cases, and to run workshops on relevant issues. Find out more about our work and how to volunteer with us.  

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