The law shop provides assistance

A landlord who fails to keep his agreements, a fine for rowdy behaviour – just like all other people, students may sometimes find themselves having to deal with the law.

The subject matter is often complicated, which is why many choose simply to ignore it. That’s a bad idea, according to the legal practitioners at the Delfland law shop. They offer people with legal issues free advice and assistance.

We arrive at Buitenhofdreef on a stormy Monday evening in December. A strong wind gusts into the Buitenhuis community centre as the sliding doors open. It is only twenty to seven, but two men are already sitting stiffly on plastic chairs in the waiting room, staring moodily ahead. They are waiting to see a lawyer.

The Delfland law shop’s walk-in office hours start at seven o’ clock. The law shop was established some three years ago to offer accessible legal advice and assistance to people with legal problems. The law shop is run by law students and graduate lawyers.

Every Monday and Wednesday evening, seven members of the team come to the community centre to offer their services. One member sits in the waiting room to register the visitors, while the other six meet the clients. Each client has twenty minutes to tell his or her story – often an emotional one – to a pair of lawyers.

They have helped more than one thousand people during the last three years, including welfare mothers in search of accommodation, retirees with questions about their pension, spouses embroiled in disputes, employees who had been laid off, consumers with faulty products who were turned away by the seller and students who had disputes with their landlords. The shop was also visited by a fourteen-year-old boy once, who had built an app and wanted to know how he could protect his design.

‘Together with the client, we try to translate the problem into legal terms,’ explains student Fahid Akachar before the walk-in hours begin. ‘We then offer advice and any necessary assistance. However, nine times out of ten we won’t have an immediate answer for the client. In that case we promise to get back to them within two weeks.’

This is because there will often be papers that the lawyers need to read, regulations and acts to be perused and letters to be written to the municipality, the immigration service, employers, etc. ‘At the end of the walk-in office hours we always have a meeting to discuss the day’s cases and help each other where needed.’

The students and lawyers who run the law shop all work on a voluntary basis. The whole team gets together once a month, when they may have a solicitor come and provide additional training. On average they devote five to ten hours a week to working for the law shop, often in the evenings or on weekends.

Though after one and a half years of service they receive a certificate, many remain with the team after this period. Akachar: ‘It is interesting and satisfying work. Because you go through so much together, you build special relationships with some clients.’ The law shop is financed via donations and funds. They also hope to obtain funding from the business community in the future. They will be approaching businesses to this end soon.

The law shop is supported by a network of solicitors, who can assist if highly specialised knowledge is required, for example. However, a letter bearing the law shop’s stamp is often sufficient to smooth matters out. The students who work in the law shop sometimes accompany their clients to court, or to negotiations on a redundancy scheme with a client’s employer. In some cases the law shop will need to refer clients to other institutions. Sometimes they have to tell their clients that they probably do not have a chance.

‘But most of the time we can offer our clients something, however small,’ says Akachar. ‘Even if it’s just a sympathetic ear. Many a tear is shed in the law shop, in part because people are so grateful that they have finally found someone who is prepared to help them. They are often in dire straits.’

Akachar does have one serious request of prospective clients. ‘People need to come and see us as soon as possible. Sometimes, they don’t come until after the objection period has expired. The government is particularly strict in these cases. Why do they wait so long? I suppose it’s procrastination, or simply ignoring the problem. However, this usually only makes the problem worse.’


Four students who do voluntary work for the law shop talk about their ideals, plans for the future and experiences with other students.


Hanneke Romeijn (24), third-year student of notarial law at Leiden University

A student was summarily dismissed by his employer by telephone. He often turned up for work late and failed to attend a course. The employer had had enough, but the student was not happy and turned to the law shop. Romeijn looked up the regulations on summary dismissal for him. It turned out that the employer failed to meet the applicable conditions for summary dismissal. For example, the dismissal should have followed immediately after the incident. Moreover, the employer also failed to pay the student’s wages for the past few months. Romeijn suggested recovering the student’s back wages. The matter is still in court, but she is confident that they will win the case.

Romeijn started studying law because she wanted to become a notary. Now that she has experienced practical legal work she is not so sure anymore. ‘A notary spends most of her time in the office drawing up deeds and contracts. Though I still enjoy cases involving family and inheritance law, I’m now more inclined towards specialising in civil law.’

The subject matter came to life in the law shop, she explains. ‘I enjoy being able to help others with my knowledge. People are intimidated by anything that involves law. I am happy to devote some of my time to helping them.’

Romeijn has gained much practical knowledge in the law shop. ‘How to behave in court, how to draw up a letter, how to hold an interview – I have learned a lot about myself.’ She finds it particularly difficult when she is unable to help desperate cases. For example, if someone has huge debts and the creditors refuse to agree to some form of debt relief. ‘It is always difficult to have to tell people that you can’t do anything for them.’


Patty Brand (22), second-year law student at Leiden University

Brand started working in the law shop only recently and has so far handled six cases. Her first case proved to be a really tough one. ‘A client came to me because his application for a social welfare benefit had been turned down. He wanted me to help him submit an objection, but the municipality refused to provide the information we needed. I kept on calling, e-mailing and writing them and now, more than two months later, I’ve finally had a result.’

Another case Brand handled involved a student who had a problem with her downstairs neighbour’s dogs, who were defecating in the corridor in the apartment building. It smelled and they also made a lot of noise. The neighbour refused to listen to her complaints and the landlord simply turned her away whenever she went to him to complain. ‘We helped her to write a letter. We advised her to threaten to complain to the rents commission that the flat did not meet her expectations. The case was resolved within a week.’

Brand’s colleague Tom de Beus continues: ‘It is often a case of legal inequality. People are simply not taken seriously. Only after we have written a letter with our stamp on it do people realise the urgency of the matter.’


Tom de Beus (20), second-year law student at Leiden University

Helping people is deeply satisfying, so Tom de Beus has discovered after only a few months working for the law shop. ‘The theory suddenly starts to come alive when a case becomes emotional. It gets you more involved. It is also really cool if you succeed in getting results.’

Take the case of the student who bought a game console in the shop where he himself worked. The console was defective, so he returned to the shop (as a customer rather than an employee) and got his money back. ‘His employer found out and wasn’t happy, so he deducted the amount from the student’s wages. Of course that wasn’t legal. In the end the student got back his wages and the money for the console.’

However, it does not always work out that way. ‘I once registered a landlord who was having trouble with his tenants. The landlord then talked to Patty about his problem. A week later two tenants visited the law shop. I recognised the case; these were the same tenants mentioned by the landlord. Sadly, I could not do anything for them. Regardless of who was in the right in this case, it would have led to a conflict of interest if I had helped them. They had to seek legal counsel elsewhere. Happily, there are law shops in The Hague and Leiden too.’


Fahid Akachar (23) has a Bachelor’s degree in law and business administration and is now doing a Master’s programme in company law

A group of students stagger through the streets after a night out. They pass by a building with balloons hanging outside. One of the students pops one just for a laugh. A police motorcyclist happens to be passing by and issues the student a fine of more than three hundred euros for rowdy behaviour.

The student visited Akachar at the law shop a few months later – by now desperate for help. He had unsuccessfully contested the fine, and now the next step was to take it to court, explains Akachar. ‘We advised him to explain to the judge that this inconsequential event would have major implications for his future. For example, if you have a criminal record you cannot get a declaration of good conduct. We advised the student to take a balloon along to the court to emphasise that bursting it surely wasn’t serious enough to warrant a criminal record. The judge agreed.’

Akachar gets satisfaction from helping people, he says. After completing his studies he aims to get a job with a firm of solicitors in Amsterdam’s Zuidas district. Then he will discover whether he can get the same satisfaction working for corporations. ‘My studies are totally focused on businesses. The human factor is practically non-existent. I represented a business for the duration of an entire case during court training. Such cases always end up being about money. I have discovered that that gives me less satisfaction than helping people defend their rights in the law shop.’


The location where the photo was taken are not connected to the cases described in this article.

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