Kalon Tsang, a City of London pensions lawyer, was helping a mother of two complete a complicated disability benefits form as she distracted 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 carer, had come to seek help at St Luke’s community centre in Islington, north London, where Tsang volunteers at a weekly cost of living crisis clinic.
The 37-year-old single parent had just paid a debt of thousands of pounds and was scared about the winter ahead, with grocery inflation hitting a record high last month.
“It’s very worrying,” she said. “I’ve got my landlady to change the fridge so it uses less electricity. I almost don’t switch anything on and I live in an old house which is cold. I am trying to use less gas, freezing food and then microwaving it so I don’t use the oven.”
She is one of an increasing number of clients being seen by the clinic, which launched in late March. Run in two locations by the Westway Trust, a charity, the scheme is funded and staffed by volunteers from Hogan Lovells, a City law firm whose partners earn up to £1.8mn a year.
Despite the government’s support package to help households meet rising energy bills, Britain faces a tough winter. Some 73 per cent of adults reported a rise in living costs between August and September, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Poorer households spend an above-average proportion of their income on energy and food, so they are more vulnerable to price increases.
The clinic, headed by John Mahoney, a solicitor at the Westway Trust, helps people struggling to pay utility bills complete welfare benefits forms and apply for grants.
“It’s about income maximisation really,” said Mahoney, who first assesses a person’s financial position on the phone before helping them face-to-face. “People coming here are struggling and getting into debt. They have no savings and often can’t borrow more.”
More and more people were starting to fall into utility debt, he said: “They are not normally so worried about it that they mention it at this time of year.”
City law firms have long done pro-bono work. HerbertSmithFreehills, for example, staffs a weekly advice clinic in Tower Hamlets, one of the capital’s poorest boroughs.
But such support has traditionally not focused on the cost of living, concentrating more on helping people deal with legal claims.
Mahoney often signposts clients to schemes designed to help people pay their utility bills. These include Thames WaterHelp, a social tariff run by the UK’s largest water company that halves costs for Londoners earning less than about £20,000 a year, excluding disability benefits.
Hardly anyone knows about the scheme, said Mahoney, because “you have to go through about six clicks on the website to get there”, but the clinic has helped about a fifth of its clients apply.
In June, the clinic supported a 92-year-old who was unable to read or write and shared a council flat with his 62-year-old son. Although the son was made redundant early on in the pandemic, he did not claim any benefits, leading him to spend most of his savings and run up £1,000 in credit card debts.
Mahoney established that the men had been wrongly advised by the jobcentre and were eligible for housing benefit and pension credit. He also identified that the son had been incorrectly told he could not succeed his father on their flat’s tenancy.
Most of the 104 clients seen by the clinic between late March and late August said their spending power had been hit by the cost of living crisis and the pandemic, with two-thirds living with a disability or long-term illness.
A quarter of clients found welfare application forms too difficult to fill in by themselves, with almost half either illiterate or digitally illiterate.
More than 70 Hogan Lovells staff have signed up to volunteer at the clinic.
Yasmin Waljee, partner, international pro bono, described it as “a critical time, when people need access to specialist advice more than ever”.
Tsang said it was “good to do something different than the day to day” and that volunteering represented “one way to help” as families’ budgets are squeezed.
On the day the Financial Times visited, Shah Warraich, a colleague of Tsang’s, had been on the phone to the benefits agency for almost two hours, helping a couple with two young children.
As he ended the call, Warraich said he had secured them an extra £31.20 a week, which they should already have been receiving under universal credit.
“It’s only taken him three phone calls and two hours,” said Mahoney drily. “It’s a really good result.”