Legal largesse under the radar

Mon, Sep 24, 2012, 01:00

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.”

People from the area can now drop into the law centre, or visit one of the outreach clinics run on a weekly basis, to discuss any legal query they may have. The major issues that crop up time and again relate to family law, employment and housing. “I think debt is becoming more noticeable as well,” he says. “Obviously the cutbacks are affecting everybody in the community.”

Another area where the centre does an increasing amount of work is mediation. This service sees trained mediators giving people the opportunity to talk about their differences and to come to a mutually satisfactory solution. Mediation can be a six-step process, but the centre finds that, very often, disputes resolve themselves after the second stage, when people have simply had the opportunity to talk to a mediator about their problems.

The centre also runs a unique mediation programme in six primary schools, whereby students learn the skills of peer mediation. If a conflict arises in the classroom or in the school, students can go to their appointed mediator, discuss the problem and hopefully find a solution. The programme has proved such a success that Trinity Comprehensive secondary school has decided to introduce it.

“They learn how to talk about issues – whether it’s a football issue or a violence issue – and actually have the confidence and self-esteem to express what it is that’s bothering them,” explains Paula McCann, a manager at BCLC. “The feedback from the principals . . . is that it’s having a very beneficial impact in terms of behaviour.”

There is also evidence that the children are applying their new-found mediation skills at home to resolve disputes that may arise within their families.

While the centre is fortunate to receive so much pro bono support from barristers, lecturers and mediators, it cannot run on goodwill alone. It receives some financial assistance from the Law Society, and its premises is provided free of charge by Dublin City Council. Its main source of funding is Ballymun Regeneration Ltd, a State-funded body which is responsible for the physical and social regeneration of Ballymun.

However, this regeneration project is winding down and will come to an end next year. “We’re going to have to look around and see where we can access other funding,” McCann says. Despite the impending funding challenge, she says the centre’s six-strong team of staff is “hugely optimistic” about the future.