The Police song lyrics “sending out an SOS” echo around the Town House youth centre in Colchester, Essex. It looks like any other youth centre: colourful posters on the notice board advertise events, the bar area is stocked with chocolate snacks as opposed to booze and a raucous game of pool is played out upstairs.
But what makes the lyrics of the song particularly apt – and makes this youth centre different from others today – is that sitting on one of the plush bar seats is solicitor Liz Franks.
Franks began the Lawyers for Young People (LFYP) initiative in January 2006. Once a month, she listens to SOS messages from vulnerable young people needing legal advice as part of the unique scheme run by her firm, Fisher Jones Greenwood LLP.
Leaving care services
LFYP is a not-for-profit service providing young people with specialist legal advice around specific areas of law, including social welfare, community care, health, care and leaving care services, and family breakdown. It began with a grant from the Legal Services Commission and was the first time a commercial law firm had been awarded a not-for-profit contract of this type.
Initially, LFYP started as a pilot in different youth centres and projects in Essex. It has been so positive that a monthly drop-in session has just begun at the Connexions service in Ipswich, Suffolk. Franks, or her job-share colleague Simone Surgenor, will attend this new regular session to offer advice to young people and work with them for as long as necessary.
Franks’s motivation for a legal service targeting young people was very simple: “This is an area of law that needs to be developed as young people find it difficult to access the law. It’s quite difficult for young people to approach a solicitor so we are taking the law out to them in a non-threatening way, by going to where they are.”
Franks and Surgenor deal with all manner of queries over legal issues concerning young people’s lives, and no two situations are the same. Young people can either just turn up at one of their open sessions, or be referred to the service by a social care practitioner.
At the Colchester Town House youth centre, operated by Essex Council’s youth service, Justine Gosling is one such referrer. She is a youth worker and team leader in the youth service and also has a law degree. Before LFYP began its drop-in sessions at the youth centre, whenever a young person approached her with a legal query she would get out the Yellow Pages directory to find them a suitable solicitor. This wasn’t always successful, though, as many of the solicitors could not help the young people. So when LFYP contacted the youth service, Gosling jumped at the chance.
The legal service charges only a small fee depending on the young person’s means and what work is undertaken, removing the risk of young people being exploited, says Gosling. Most young people do not pay anything, and feedback so far has been positive.
Daniel Day is one of the young people Gosling referred to Franks in March this year to address a problem he was having with his bank, which he says had mishandled his account. Franks is collating all the information about his case, much to Day’s relief: “It’s a worthwhile service because you’ve got somebody to spill your problems to who’s listening. I felt relieved, I didn’t have to keep it to myself anymore.”
Concern over police caution
Another young person who is happy with what LFYP has done for him is Nathan Baroni, a 20-year-old doorman. He came to the youth centre and talked to Gosling because he was concerned a police caution he received when he was 13 would hinder his career.
After speaking to Franks about his situation his concerns were resolved satisfactorily with a series of letters and e-mails sent over three months to the necessary parties. Baroni says: “I was getting stressed about it and it was overwhelming. But Liz dealt with it easily and things weren’t that bad in the end.” He praises Franks for checking that his caution had initially been handled properly, and that the treatment he had received from the police was justified.
For Franks, hearing the positive impact the service has on young people’s lives makes all the hard work worthwhile. “Lots of young people’s problems are intermingled and, if these can be resolved now, it may prevent other problems occurring in the future.”