Law: POW packs a big punch: Sharon Wallach on an unusual way to get practical help

An organisation set up by ex- offenders for ex-offenders has widened its scope to offer practical help to anyone who may be subject to 'undue process of law', in the words of its chairman, Godfrey Vos.

Mr Vos, a former inmate of Ford prison, established POW Services Ltd - formerly Prisoners' Opportunities to Work, now People's Opportunities to Work - two years ago. Last January, POW became a benevolent company limited by guarantee.

'We operate through libraries and prison probation offices,' Mr Vos says. 'If we advertised further, we couldn't take on any more work.' POW is currently dealing with 150 matters such as DSS claims and some 90 legal problems. Its legal services department provides work for a dozen people, including 'Charles', the legal services director.

Charles, a former solicitor who was struck off and served seven months of a 21-month jail sentence, is the only salaried member of the department. The others are either volunteers or involved in employment action schemes, which pay them a small amount each week.

Working for POW is excellent experience, Charles says: many former volunteers have found work, pupillages or articles as a direct result of that grounding.

Staff changes, therefore, are frequent. The department currently includes a former diplomat, an unemployed commercial solicitor, a pupil barrister in his fifties, and a young man hoping that his experience here will serve as a mini-pupillage. An Australian solicitor, visiting the UK with her husband, volunteers her services four days a week. One member of staff has completed his Law Society finals and is hunting for articles; another is a barrister who had a tenancy lined up but was let down.

Charles explains that the department is run as a solicitors' practice, but adds: 'We do co-operate with solicitors. We are not in opposition or competition, but we fill a gap.' That gap largely relates to legal aid. 'After the trial at first instance is finished, the legal aid certificate covers advice on appeal, and that's all. Once you are in a prison cell, no one is interested in you.' POW's staff will, for instance, draft grounds of appeal. 'We can also recommend two or three sets of chambers who do pro bono work, and there are a similar number of solicitors' firms that support us,' Charles says.

POW members tends to be white-collar. 'The old lag, the petty criminal, tends to get overwhelmed with help. The middle-class wife whose husband is imprisoned has no help; she doesn't even know where to go.' Members, therefore, tend to fall into the gap of legal aid eligibility, their numbers swelled by recent cuts. Charles cites a typical case dealt with by his department: a litigant bringing a suit of breach of contract against an employer. If the client can pay, POW charges a very reasonable pounds 35 an hour for its help. It has, Charles says, had a number of successes where settlement has been reached. Other typical cases include bankruptcies, actions for possession - anything, Charles says, in which people are put under pressure by the civil or criminal system.

Charles's background is in general commercial work. In his days as a practising solicitor, he was a partner in a medium-sized firm, then worked in sole practice. Other members of his department bring different areas of expertise. But, he says, they do not embark on anything they do not know. 'What we're good at, because we have the time, is research. We have a large library here. Some books are mine, others have been donated by law firms.'

Anyone can join POW for a pounds 15 annual fee (waived for those in prison). The company neither seeks nor obtains donations, says Mr Vos: government funding was turned down 'because we thought it would prejudice our operation'.

Because of its status as a benevolent organisation governed by the Companies Act, POW cannot make profits. 'We run at a surplus, which we use to provide practical help to people.' The surplus, Mr Vos says, is generated by 'the expertise of the directors'. This includes managing as a business centre the building that houses POW, which was acquired on good terms as a result of the recession.

POW has some notable patrons, including Lord Patrick Spens, the Earl of Longford, and the Labour MP Austin Mitchell. But Mr Vos is proudest of the company's record: of 600 people helped, he knows of only three who have re-offended.

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