Angie Manning – What’s Your Problem? Brings Justice For All
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos by Nick Hook
Angie Manning is pretty damn close to being Superwoman. Raised in the complex and challenging foster care system and a single mum to two daughters, she has gone on to found What’s Your Problem?, a community interest company (CIC) based in Paignton who provide invaluable legal advice and counselling to clients who would otherwise struggle to afford legal advice or representation. With a concrete ethical approach to business, she seeks to be a voice for those who don’t have one and to secure justice for those who cannot afford to for themselves. Come to think of it, it seems wrong that justice is something that has to be afforded…
Angie had a scattered childhood, living in Birmingham, around various parts of the South West including Dawlish and Newton Abbot and a foster home in Paignton. She eventually settled down in Birmingham and trained as a Legal Executive at the firm Irwin Mitchell, where she worked for around ten years. She had her first daughter and started to feel like she wanted to raise her back in Torbay, where she had spent some of her own childhood. The beaches, fields and fresh air of Torbay felt somewhat more attractive and appealing to Angie than the concrete jungle of the West Midlands.
So, strategically timed around her daughter’s schooling, she moved down to Torbay in 2010 and started to work out what life was going to look like for the two of them. Angie explained,
“I eventually asked myself ‘What can I do with the skills that I’ve got, working around my young family to provide ethical and accessible legal services for those who might not otherwise be able to afford them?’. In essence, this is where the seed of what has now become What’s Your Problem? was planted.”
Angie had been thinking for some time that a mobile advisory service of sorts was required to offer much-needed legal help to those in society who felt unable to secure such services due to the costs involved. So, using her background in Civil Litigation and her training as a Legal Executive, she started What’s Your Problem? In June of 2015.
Angie told me how she initially expected to be doing three appointments per week, taking up a few hours in her schedule – something that she could fit around childcare as, by this point she had two daughters. Her initial aim was to help a few people here and there to challenge erroneous utility bills and basic welfare or family law issues. However, by December 2015, she had amassed fifty clients and was working around the clock to complete all of the associated work.
“I had clearly underestimated how much need there was for this service in our community. I’d love to say that I had spotted a gap in the market and really strategically planned it, but I didn’t! I just sort of fell into this niche corner of the legal sector. Every single case that we deal with validates my initial effort in setting up the organisation.”
“I’m very lucky to have gathered such an amazing team here. I just didn’t know that there were so many people out there who wanted to make a difference to our community and, importantly, in an ethical way. We’re very lucky here in Torbay as the charity and social enterprise sector is burgeoning and I have met some amazing people who are community-minded and who really want to make a lasting difference.”
As a CIC, funding and grant applications have been central to the financial sustainability of What’s Your Problem?. For example, Angie successfully applied for a place on the Lloyds Bank School of Social Entrepreneurs which also came with a £4,000 grant. This grant helped to secure the initial insurances and I.T equipment to get the CIC up and running and also came with twelve months of training in areas such as finances, marketing, management and business planning. Angie reflected,
“This was a huge turning point for me really and gave me the confidence to move forward with my business idea in a purposeful way.”
At this point it was only Angie working for the organisation (with a small amount of administrative support) and for three years she worked solidly at all hours of the day to keep pushing the organisation forward and to provide as much legal support to as many people as possible. Clearly, with two young daughters, this eventually took a toll and something had to change.
So, Angie contacted the Devon Community Foundation who stepped in with a loan of £50,000 from their Devon Social Investment Fund. Support from Access and their funding partners Big Lottery Fund and Big Society Capital enables the fund to provide bespoke loans for entrepreneurial organisations. This funded their expansion and allowed Angie to start gathering a team of like-minded and highly-skilled people around her. In particular, the money paid for a Welfare Rights expert who trained and assisted the growing What’s Your Problem? team in challenging benefits hearings in appeal tribunals.
Further to this social investment grant, Angie successfully applied to the National Lottery for an Awards for All grant which pays for a Barrister to deliver free legal advice and their dedicated counselling service in the form of fellow Director Kirsty Kell.
Angie realised that, due to the nature of their work, many of their clients were incredibly vulnerable and often in a very challenging place emotionally as well as financially and practically. Having experienced some of the same circumstances that some of her clients face in her own life, Angie was able to understand that, as well as providing much-needed legal support to her clients, there was a real need to also provide them with a more holistic service including counselling and advice, to try and remedy some of the root causes of the unfortunate situations that their clients had found themselves in.
Vitally, this new counselling service has allowed Angie to draw a healthy boundary between the legal support which she provides and the emotional needs of her clients. By keeping the two parts of the organisation separate, the potential for her becoming burdened or over-invested in particular cases has been necessarily diminished. She is able to provide the highest possible standard of legal support to her clients in the full knowledge that Kirsty is able to provide the emotional support necessary to navigate what can sometimes be a distressing and difficult legal process.
As a CIC, all of the profit that What’s Your Problem? makes is re-invested back in to their social cause – to provide justice and legal support to as many people in the local area as possible. They also donate some of their profits back into their local community in other ways – whether it be supporting local food banks or, indeed, other charities too. Angie stated,
“Our immediate geographical reach means that we work a lot with individuals, families and organisations in Paignton. However, we haven’t limited ourselves by stating that we only want to work with clients in one location. We will do whatever we can to help anyone from anywhere, in theory. I don’t see that there is anyone that couldn’t benefit from our services. We’re starting small but who knows what the future holds for us? We’d love to, one day, scale up across Devon.”
At this point in our conversation, discussion turned to the somewhat humorous name of the organisation, which has the potential to catch people off guard a bit and stop them in their tracks. Angie laughed, commenting,
“You do have to say the name of our company with a slight smile on your face! I’ve gone a bit back and forth with the name if I’m honest. It worked for me at the very beginning when it was just me and a few clients. However, when a judge asks you where you are from and you reply, ‘What’s your Problem?’ it can feel slightly uncomfortable!. As long as we wear a smile on our faces, it doesn’t present us with any problems and can actually be quite a good conversation starter.”
I quizzed Angie on her ethics and why they played such a foundational part in the services that What’s Your Problem? provide. Without skipping a step, she replied,
“There have been lots of times in my life when I have needed the types of support that we now offer, but it wasn’t there for me at the time. I also feel very strongly that access to justice should not be limited by someone’s financial situation.”
“Clearly that represents a challenge for us as a CIC as we need to remain financially operational and, sadly, can’t give away our services completely free of charge. However, by knowing the funding and grant opportunities available to us, we can sometimes get specific funding for particular cases to ensure that the financial implications on the individuals concerned is minimal or, in rare cases, non-existent. If I had it my way, our organisation would be funded and elements of our work would be free of charge. Maybe one day we will be able to transition to a business model that allows for that. I very much hope so…”
When it comes to the types of work that What’s Your Problem? undertakes, they work in some of the most vulnerable and challenging situations that individuals and families can face. This includes help navigating issues surrounding custody of children, putting broken families back together, help protecting vulnerable individuals from harm, assisting individuals during financial or circumstantial changes and meeting basic needs for families such as connecting them with foodbanks, mental health support and other similar types of organisations. They can also fund free legal advice and help clients to access legal aid or find direct access representation.
Reflecting back on our time together, I was deeply impressed with the humble, communal and servant-hearted approach that Angie and her team take to legal work. They offer a holistic and profoundly meaningful set of services to people who, otherwise, would be hopeless and exposed to untold levels of risk. This behind-the-scenes, under-the-radar type of work is as selfless as it gets and, I imagine, must come at great personal cost sometimes.
Join me in cheering on Angie and her fantastic team as they go about changing their community and the world around them from the ground up.
To find out more about the amazing work of Angie Manning and What’s Your Problem? , click here.