Bristol ‘law shop’ given new lease of life by local solicitors

Bristol: shop provides a service to the community

An award-winning Bristol community law shop that allows customers to purchase self-help legal advice in five-minute segments is to continue following the retirement of its founder after a local solicitors’ firm took over the premises.

The managing partner of six-partner Bristol firm Barcan Woodward predicted an upsurge in interest after legal aid is slashed in April.

The Law Shop was the brainchild of solicitor Peter Browne, who started it in 1991 to support people wanting to handle simple legal matters themselves. It will be formally rebranded as Barcan Woodward Community Law.

The shop enables consumers to obtain free or lower-cost information and support, with the firm providing guidance, rather than acting for them. It charges £10 per five-minute unit of lawyer’s time, offering appointment-only consultations and drop-in advice sessions on various matters, including help with filling in legal forms to advice on family law, housing, employment, debt, small claims and consumer issues.

It is managed by Barcan partner Julie Scott and staffed by a rota of solicitors and legal advisers.

Barcans’ managing partner Chris Miller told Legal Futures his firm has taken over the premises but not the business and that “we’re doing something similar from the same premises”, with “very much the same ethos”. He said he “very much admired” Mr Browne, who won a Law Society excellence award for client service in 2009 and received an MBE in 2001 for “services to those with legal disputes”.

The shop has been redecorated and “freshened up”. A library of “dusty old books” has been updated with a computer terminal which has access to “a range of useful websites”, Mr Miller said.

He described the venture as “very successful” so far, adding: “It’s not exactly pro bono but it is low cost and doesn’t make a huge amount of money, so we are providing a service to the community. But obviously it is also extending our brand awareness and [working] as a marketing tool as well.”

A rise in self-represented litigants after April was one of the things that motivated him to continue the work of the Law Shop. “Particularly for family [law], I foresee there are going to be tons of people who currently when they come and see us would be eligible for legal aid but after April won’t be.

“Either we’re going to have to give a lot of free half-hour interviews… or they can buy some advice, but fairly affordably. They are not going to want to pay £200 an hour for a contact dispute.”

However, customers who need access to the range of the firm’s regular legal services can do so through the Law Shop. The firm’s main office is about a mile away. The practice currently has legal aid contracts for family and clinical negligence work.

Mr Miller said the firm was in the process of producing a range of free printed leaflets containing basic legal information that was already available through its website. All clients must sign a “session sheet” which spells out the limits of the advice on offer.

He explained: “It’s made very clear to them from the outset that any advice we give is subject to the information that they give to us. It’s their responsibility to manage the case, essentially… we don’t go on the record as acting for the client; we just help them help themselves. We don’t open a file, we don’t enter into any correspondence, no emails, no ‘phone calls. We don’t keep any records.”

Concluding, he said: “We’ve got sofas in there, we’ve got a coffee machine… the idea is that whenever you’re out shopping, or whatever, you can pop in there and have a look; it’s on the high street and is not intimidating. You’re not thinking ‘how much are they charging?’ from the minute you walk in.”

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