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Civil Litigation Section

Helping hands: SBA - the Solicitors’ Charity

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Sue Ellis explains how SBA - the Solicitors’ Charity can support solicitors in time of need.

SBA - the Solicitors’ Charity has been working since 1858 to help ensure that no solicitor is left unsupported in times of need or crisis. It provides help for current and former solicitors and their families when they experience personal financial hardship. 

The charity is well known for supporting older people. These individuals are usually living on permanently low fixed incomes, and SBA has been able to commit long-term financial assistance to help them retain their independence and dignity in later life.

However, the overall demographic has changed significantly for SBA in recent years. Overall improvements in pensioner income as well as successive waves of contraction in legal services, mean that the average age of someone approaching SBA for the first time today is not 79, but 49.

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Civil litigators are well represented within SBA’s beneficiary demographic. They currently comprise one in 10 of those applying for help. Karen South, SBA trustee and litigation partner at KPM Solicitors, describes the context which can bring litigators to SBA’s door.

‘Litigators can face difficult working conditions, as much as they are also exciting, varied and fulfilling. As practitioners, we are subject to some fairly onerous administrative / case management rules, such as sanction orders, costs budgeting, increased court fees and a very fragile and badly managed court support staff system. Due to cut-backs, the system is at breaking point and because there is so much reliance on online filing, it is difficult to manage a case so virtually. But somehow we do! 

‘Against that, we have to provide value for money for clients and at the same time fulfil our obligations to our employers.  There is always a conflict within that dynamic – time-recording every piece of work on a case will cost the client dearly, but if we don’t, we lose our boss’ money. The resulting levels of negative stress, often built up over many years, can be strikingly visible amongst the litigators who apply to SBA.’

Triggers for applying are often a complex mixture of personal and professional issues. Some recent examples of litigator applicants include:

  • Anna, a young solicitor, off work due to stress and anxiety, who became homeless after fleeing an abusive relationship
  • William, a former equity partner with bipolar disorder living on disability benefits, who became locked into a ‘niche’ mortgage agreement during a hypomanic episode. The interest charged is 12.99 per cent
  • Sara, a child protection specialist with two teenage children, who became jobless after chronic stress. Her partner was unexpectedly diagnosed with a rare cancer, requiring a transplant
  • Daniel, a two years’ PQE solicitor who, aged 29, had a heart attack while out jogging, resulting in serious brain damage. He has lived in hospitals and neuro-rehab units ever since.

It is not only colleagues with poor physical and/or mental health among the ranks of SBA beneficiaries. The charity is now regularly approached by people who have lost their jobs. SBA’s response has been to partner with specialist consultancy Renovo to provide a structured three-month programme of holistic career, job-search and wellbeing support.  As well as offering a wealth of online resources, the programme includes one-to-one coaching (by telephone, Skype or email) with a dedicated career coach, to help sharpen CVs, prepare for interview and enhance job-searching.

The Renovo service is not specifically geared around legal practice. This gives participants the scope to transfer the wealth of transferable skills that lawyers typically develop during their training and practice, so that potential for re-employment is as wide as possible. One important benefit SBA participants report is a boost to their self-esteem and self-confidence, often much needed if there have been bruising experiences after redundancy or job loss. 

Irrespective of their employment status, health or age, SBA applicants need to satisfy three basic conditions:

  1. They must be current or former solicitors on the roll for England & Wales or be the financial dependant of such a person
  2. They do not have access to more than £10,000 in ‘liquid’ savings
  3. Their total net household income is below the threshold indicated by the ‘Minimum Income Standards’.

The Minimum Income Standards are funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and accessible on a free, anonymous tool, so that people can discreetly check for themselves if they might be eligible. It is becoming easier (but by no means straightforward) for lawyers to talk about their own wellbeing and mental health. Money worries, however, remain widely undiscussable. SBA is focused on finding ways to tackle the associated sense of stigma and shame.  

Christl Hughes, SBA’s current chair of trustees, explains: 

‘Solicitors are proud people. They spend their working lives helping to solve other people’s problems and we all strive to be the best that we can be. There is a fear that, if we speak out about our own problems, it will be seen as a sign of weakness that undermines everything for which we’ve worked so hard.’

For those who do reach out to SBA, financial assistance can help with the costs of day-to-day living, priority debts and a myriad of one-off items. This is what happened with the four examples shown above:

  • Anna received a grant of £5k over six months, for help with day-to-day living, and one-off awards for the deposit and first month’s rent on a new home (£2k), furniture and white goods (£2k)
  • An interest-free loan of £6k over six months was agreed for William, to help with day-to-day living. Help is being sourced to unpick the disastrous mortgage agreement
  • Sara and her partner received an interest-free loan totalling nearly £21k, to cover living costs and to clear priority debts
  • A grant of £4k for a specialist chair was agreed, to help improve Daniel’s posture and comfort.

That SBA can act in such ways is due to the generosity of thousands of individual solicitors, firms of all shapes and sizes as well as long-standing support from local law societies. One important income strand is from the transfer of residual client balances. SBA is trusted by thousands of firms to put these dormant funds to good use, whilst providing an indemnity (irrespective of amount) to protect client money.

For further information about SBA, how it can help colleagues in need and how you can support us, visit www.sba.org.uk and follow on Twitter @SBACharity.

For further information, contact Sue Ellis, sue@sba.org.uk on 020 8675 6440.

 

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