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City law firm helps clients fight poverty at cost of living clinic

Kalon Tsang, a City of London pensions solicitor, was helping a mother-of-two complete a complicated form for disability benefits as she entertained her six-month-old toddler with a toy.

The woman, who lives in Catford, south London and is on maternity leave from her job as a caregiver, had come to seek help at St Luke’s Community Center in Islington, north London, where Tsang volunteers in a weekly cost of living crisis clinic.

The 37-year-old single parent had just paid off a debt of thousands of pounds and was scared of the coming winter as grocery price inflation hit a record high last month.

“It’s very worrying,” she said. “I asked my landlady to change the refrigerator so that it consumes less electricity. I hardly light anything and I live in an old house which is cold. I try to use less gas, freeze food then put it in the microwave so I don’t have to use the oven.

She is one of a growing number of clients seen by the clinic, which opened in late March. Run at two locations by the Westway Trust, a charity, the scheme is funded and run by volunteers from Hogan Lovells, a town law firm whose partners earn up to £1.8million a year .

Despite the government’s support package to help households cope with rising energy bills, Britain is facing a tough winter. Some 73% of adults reported an increase in the cost of living between August and September, according at the Office for National Statistics.

The poorest households spend a higher than average proportion of their income on energy and food, so they are more vulnerable to price increases.

The clinic, run by Westway Trust solicitor John Mahoney, helps people struggling to pay their utility bills fill out welfare forms and apply for grants.

John Mahoney: “People who come here are struggling and getting into debt. They have no savings and often cannot borrow more” © Charlie Bibby/FT

“It’s really about maximizing revenue,” said Mahoney, who first assesses a person’s financial situation over the phone before helping them in person. “People who come here are struggling and getting into debt. They have no savings and often cannot borrow more.

More and more people were starting to get into debt, he said: “They’re normally not so worried about it that they mention it at this time of year.”

Law firms in the city have a long history of pro bono work. HerbertSmithFreehills, for example, runs a weekly counseling clinic in Tower Hamlets, one of the capital’s poorest boroughs.

But such support has traditionally not focused on the cost of living, focusing more on helping people deal with legal claims.

Mahoney often refers customers to programs designed to help people pay their utility bills. These include Thames WaterHelp, a social tariff run by the UK’s largest water company which halves costs for Londoners earning less than around £20,000 a year, excluding disability benefits.

Hardly anyone knows about the program, Mahoney said, because “you have to go through about six website clicks to get to it,” but the clinic has helped about a fifth of its clients apply.

In June, the clinic supported a 92-year-old man who could not read or write and shared a social flat with his 62-year-old son. Although the son was made redundant at the start of the pandemic, he did not claim any benefits, which led him to spend most of his savings and rack up £1,000 in credit card debt.

Kalon Tsang helps a client fill out her government forms
Kalon Tsang helps a client complete her government forms © Charlie Bibby/FT

Mahoney established that the men had received poor advice from the employment agency and were eligible for housing benefit and pension credit. He also identified that the son had been wrongly informed that he could not succeed his father on the rental of their apartment.

Most of the 104 clients seen by the clinic between late March and late August said their purchasing power had been hit by the cost-of-living crisis and the pandemic, with two-thirds living with a disability or long-term illness. duration.

A quarter of clients found social assistance application forms too difficult to complete on their own, with almost half illiterate or digitally illiterate.

More than 70 Hogan Lovells staff have signed up to volunteer at the clinic.

Yasmin Waljee, partner, pro bono international, described it as “a critical moment, when people need access to specialist advice more than ever”.

Tsang said it’s “good to do something different from the everyday” and that volunteering is “a way to help out” when families’ budgets are tight.

On the day of the Financial Times visit, Shah Warraich, a colleague of Tsang’s, had been on the phone to the welfare agency for nearly two hours, helping a couple with two young children.

Ending the call, Warraich said he got them an extra £31.20 a week, which they should have already received under Universal Credit.

“It only took him three phone calls and two hours,” Mahoney said dryly. “It’s a very good result.”

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