Legal largesse under the radar
PROFILE BALLYMUN COMMUNITY LAW CENTRE:IT’S FAIR to say the legal profession has been getting a bad rap in recent years – a perception of exorbitant fees combined with the uncovering of rogue solicitors has diminished the standing of lawyers in Ireland. However, on the flip side, the profession is possibly unique in terms of the level of community and pro bono work being carried out beneath the radar.
This much is evident from speaking with Frank Murphy, a solicitor at the Ballymun Community Law Centre (BCLC), a not-for-profit organisation which provides legal advice, representation, education and mediation to the people of Ballymun.
Barristers, both junior and senior counsel, provide “absolutely wonderful services”, taking on cases on behalf of the centre’s clients, says Murphy, who himself is one of the most self-effacing lawyers you could meet. These barristers are amazingly generous with their time, he says, as are many mediators, law lecturers and even former members of the judiciary.
For instance, the centre runs a mock trial every year in the local secondary school, Trinity Comprehensive. Murphy recalls phoning up retired judge and former president of the High Court Richard Johnson to ask whether he would preside over the mock court, and wondering what on Earth he would make of the request. “He just said: ‘What time do we start?’ It was fantastic.”
This willingness to give their services pro bono is in contrast to other professions. “It can be difficult when looking for professional witnesses,” Murphy says.
The centre is able to provide its impressive education programme because of the support of a number of leading academics. For example, Dr Olivia Smith from DCU’s law department has given introductory courses in law equality, while Trinity’s Prof Gerry Whyte also runs courses there.
The education programme aims to inform the community about the law, but its ultimate goal is to help people from Ballymun to progress into formal legal education, and this seems to be working.
A number of individuals from the area have now gone on to university, where they are pursuing legal qualifications. “We can’t wait to have a judge from Ballymun,” he says.
It wasn’t always thus. Before the BCLC was established in 2002 there were no legal services whatsoever available in the disadvantaged northside community of about 21,000 people. “I was fortunate enough to be the first ever solicitor to practice here,” Murphy recalls. It took some time to earn the trust of the community, but he is delighted with how it’s worked out. “Ballymun people are extraordinary people, so resourceful,” he says. “When we came here there was no legal service and yet they had their own advocacy going.”