A team of specially trained law staff and students from the University of East London’s Legal Advice Centre have joined forces with autism charity the Sycamore Trust to offer people with autism and their families bespoke, free legal advice.
According to The National Autistic Society, there are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK. If you include their families, autism is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people.
Autism is a developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. Symptoms can include anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders, depression, dyslexia and problems with verbal communication.
The initiative is the brainchild of the Centre’s new director, Nicola Antoniou, who is also a senior lecturer and solicitor-advocate.
“As someone who lives local to the area, and has an interest in the different services available in the community, I noticed that the Havering Autism Hub in Romford had received new funding to continue their services, having previously struggled to stay afloat,” explains Ms Antoniou.
“I decided to approach the charity to see if there was anything we could do to assist with their services, In particular, I suggested that UEL’s Law Clinic could offer their clients free legal advice, something like a bespoke project to the Autism Hub in Romford.
“I qualified as a criminal lawyer, and having dealt with clients that were affected with autism, I was aware of the potential positive effect that our services could provide.”
In October last year, the Sycamore Trust held a presentation evening for students at UEL. As a result of that, a number of students came forward who were already involved with the Legal Advice Centre – a free law clinic for the Stratford community – to help pilot the project.
After receiving training from the Sycamore Trust, a team of five students and the Legal Advice Centre’s supervising solicitor, Elena Scarlett, are now offering free fortnightly law clinics at the Autism Hub, dealing with issues such as housing, benefits, landlords, family law and employment.
Debbie Gadbury, Family Services Co-ordinator with the Sycamore Trust, said the UEL Legal Advice Centre was proving to be a great success.
“Many families affected by autism come up against many different issues around benefits, housing and education,” she said. “Accessing the clinic is empowering them with their rights and giving them the confidence to challenge issues and feel supported to do so.”
UEL law student Taylor Mint, 20, from Thurrock, Essex, had already been working with the Legal Advice Centre for a year. She is one of the five students now taking part.
“I felt as if the opportunity to volunteer at the Autism Hub in Romford was one that I could not afford to miss,” she said.
“It means I can work alongside fellow students and Eleanor Scarlett to give advice to members of the community who can’t get to the UEL Legal Advice Centre at our campus in Stratford.
“The training we got, and communicating with the clients has given me a greater understanding of autism in both adults and children. This experience has also broadened my knowledge in various areas of law, in particular welfare benefits.”
The National Autistic Society say 70 per cent of autistic adults say they are not receiving the help they need from social services, while only ten per cent of autistic adults receive employment support, compared to 53 per cent who say they want it.
Speaking about her experience of the project so far, Ms Scarlett said, “Supervising students at the Autism Hub has been a hugely rewarding experience as we see it benefiting both the community and the students themselves. We strive to make a positive difference to people’s lives and hopefully we achieve this in some way.”
The pilot project launched on 1 February and runs until the end of April. Clients with autism can access advice on housing, benefits, landlords, family law, and employment.