The Spire Foundation beginnings

Spire Barristers. Shot by Claire Wood on 24th Feb 22.

In 2016, we broke away from being a fully common law set, re-naming as Spire Barristers and re-branding to become the only specialist Family and Public Law set on the North East Circuit. A number of realities prompted this move; a recognition that we had a reduced number of criminal practitioners, that family work was the most substantial growth amongst our members and, importantly that we had a growing reputation for excellence across chambers.  Having been a traditional set since the mid 40’s, this seemed to be a bold move.

We have been fortunate, and our confidence has not been misplaced. We are privileged to have a growing number of dedicated and talented junior practitioners who add depth and breadth to our talented and highly experienced members. This depth provides an unparalleled service to our clients by members and staff from within a chambers culture and ethos that is certainly not traditional.

We have fostered a very collegiate environment which provides professional and emotional support, and responsible and caring surroundings to all members and staff. This strong culture where we share strong values gives us strong ownership and direction. We take seriously the issues facing the Bar, under-representation, retention of women, diversity and access, racism, bullying and equality of opportunity and we implement policies to underpin our thinking and actions. Our Senior Clerk, Leigh Royall, refers to this as ‘living our values.’ It gives us purpose and direction.

Family practice in care is set apart by a number of factors; the length of time it takes to reach a resolution; the number of affected parties ranging from children to grandparents, Local Authorities to guardians; child neglect, abuse and serious injury and more. All parties are emotionally invested and believe their view is best. Sadly, there is often an underlying background of deprivation, a hand-to-mouth existence, poverty, poor education, and academic achievement. Add to that the pressures of a care system that is struggling to cope with manpower shortages, overburdening caseloads, and chronic underfunding. In the middle are the legal teams trying to achieve the very best outcomes. This is understandably draining – emotionally and psychologically and despite professional distance and objectivity, the pressure and circumstances take their toll.

As a chambers, we are continually trying to communicate our values and to live up to our social responsibility conscience. Leigh regularly challenges us, questioning if we do enough or asking how we demonstrate that we do ‘live our values.’ In chambers, our caring ethos is a cornerstone in our thinking, but he asked, are there any concrete ways we can demonstrate this that will make a real difference and give us a way to ‘give back’?

Chambers has always supported charities over the years, and for the last few years, we have supported the ‘Gold from the Stone’ Christmas dinner charity. We help the Leeds and the Bradford dinners, spurred on by Liz Shaw, an inaugural prime mover and champion. We also support International Women’s Day, the Legal Walks and other causes when asked. This is the right thing to do, but it is following rather than leading.

How and where do you make a difference? Initially, and having limited resources, we knew it must be targeted help to make it count. After consideration, we focused on individuals striving to make fundamental changes to their lives and life outcomes through education. We would provide funds for equipment, travel to and from college, tuition fees and additional courses – the list went on. Our experience of the care system told us that those who are care experienced were those whose education had been the most disrupted and who found access to ‘extras’ the hardest. Hence the other criteria was that a beneficiary should be care experienced and/or with special academic needs. We found Trustees, and with a committed and driven Chair, Ashley Lord, finalised our aims and geographical area and were ready to go. Although our aim was to be a fully registered Charity with both the Charities Commission and HMRC for Gift aid, subsequently achieved, we decided that we would begin immediately.

A considerable amount of thought has been given as to how we would identify individuals who need help. We have utilised contacts we have made in several charities that have direct contact with potential beneficiaries. This has worked well, and we have supported individuals through the Samantha Sykes Foundation, Bradford Pause, The Yorkshire Children’s Centre, and Ask the Question CIC.

We realised that initially all fundraising would fall mainly within the pool of chambers members and staff. Although the Foundation is not part of Chambers, it is closely allied. The aims of the Foundation, growing from our own work-life experiences, have created a strong bond and resonance amongst members and staff alike. Our ambition, now that we are registered and can recover Gift Aid, is to broaden our message and fundraising potential by including our clients, other members of the profession and anyone who would like to join. We will offer various membership levels, offering regular updates, and opportunities to take part in fundraising and attending our AGM. All for a modest annual fee.

So far in addition to our Christmas Hamper draw, we have held the occasional auction, had a sponsored skydive, taken part in our Three Peaks challenge, and made profits from the Tuck Box sales. We have benefitted mainly from the generosity of our members, a proportion of whom pledge either a fixed or limited amount or a small percentage of their monthly receipts to the Foundation. We are very appreciative of all of our contributors and could not achieve what we can do without them. On average, we receive around £800 to £900 per month before Gift Aid. This £10,000 per annum makes a difference.

Our projects so far include contributing 50% of course fees for 2 years for a Masters student to complete their additional degree. We sponsor two students for the year to receive extra academic tuition each week. We have provided robust laptops for GCSE students, where it was identified that this would remove barriers to learning. We provided a similar laptop for someone returning to education and have paid for an annual season ticket for a mature student so getting to college was affordable.

Our most ambitious project currently is helping a Leeds primary school. Around 40% of their students have special educational needs, with most of those cases being Autism, ADHD, Dual diagnosis, or SEMH needs linked to trauma. As part of their research, they visited an ‘outstanding’ SEN provision in Essex and decided to emulate their system, which facilitates learning using IT to remove the barriers to accessing information. They have used their evidence base to evaluate the needs of every child and detailed the resources that would make a difference in allowing the children to move into the next stage of learning. The pressure on all school budgets is enormous, so resources must be juggled to survive, let alone trying to improve outcomes and enhance children’s potential through access to learning. We knew we had to be involved and are funding laptops and equipment and specialised training for staff… Once completed, the equipment we are funding or supplying will benefit over 20 children directly and indirectly.

We are always looking for additional contacts and charities to help; word of mouth is increasing our social media presence to aid this growth. Setting up has not been straightforward and has taken resolve to reach this point. We are thrilled to have received so much positive feedback from the Charities and Schools we have worked with. It is true that shortages of funding from care to education and beyond creates a need greater than we could ever hope to meet. We are happy to have made a small difference, and if we can do it, can you?

It is good to look back, having just passed our first anniversary as a registered charity, on how we have helped and who we have helped. It is essential to gratefully acknowledge our donors and the continued support of chambers. It is very gratifying how we are making a difference by not just saying we have a social conscience but doing something positive, helping people make fundamental changes in their life outcomes.

Colin Philpott
Spire Foundation Treasurer
Spire Barristers Chambers Administrator

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