“The right to justice is as important as a right to health or education.
For many, law centres provide the only means for free,
high-quality legal advice and representation.
Quite simply, no representation means no access to justice.”
Welcome to the home page of the Greater Manchester Law Centre. Here, you’ll find out about our free legal services, our campaigns to secure access to justice, and the many different ways you can get involved. Fundamentally, this is a law centre by the community and for the community – so we do need your help!
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Mark Schwenk & John Nicholson Return from Assisting ILPA’s “Refugee Legal Support Project” in Athens
Greater Manchester Law Centre management members and Kenworthys barristers Mark Schwenk and John Nicholson have been assisting the “Refugee Legal Support” project, based at the Khora Community Centre in Athens.
The project has only been up and running for about 6 months and it is now seeing substantial numbers of people every day who have been trying to find a peaceful life in Europe, having fled from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have come via the Greek islands, which they have reached only through dangerously crossing the Mediterranean in makeshift boats, while subject to possible sinking or sending away before they even arrive there.
As barristers, Mark and John have been offering qualified legal advice about re-uniting with family members who may have succeeded in reaching other countries in the EU, and also assisting with processing the claims of people seeking asylum in Greece. As founding members of the law centre here in Manchester, they have also offered advice to the volunteers at Khora on the development of the project locally in Athens; the Khora centre is based in the generally run-down district of Exarchion, now home to many migrants and otherwise homeless people, and the centre’s volunteers offer clothing, food, safe space for women, play area for children, as well as a barber and dentist.
For more information on Khora see here.
By Eimear McCartan and Sam Blewitt, Campaign Volunteers at the Greater Manchester Law Centre.
On Wednesday 14th June, a housing block engulfed in flames and blackened by charred bricks became a flaming beacon for social injustice. One of the many questions in need of urgent address is whether the current law denied the residents of Grenfell Tower proper access to justice.
Legal Aid Cuts
In April 2013, the legal aid budget was cut significantly leaving 650,000 people no longer able to access the justice system. In an attempt by the Minister of Justice to shave £350 million from the budget, the ‘Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012’ was introduced implementing significant funding cuts. Most relevantly, public funding for housing was turned off, which meant that legal aid would only be available for matters of housing law under ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Reports have emerged that residents of the tower on two separate occasions raised concerns about the safety of the building, but were unable to access legal aid and subsequently the representation that they needed. The problem was rooted in the fact that a legal aid claim will only arise when a property is in ‘disrepair’. The installation of unsafe cladding materials and a lack of fire extinguishers would not fall within this scope under the new reform. Without legal aid, the residents simply could not afford the proper representation they required.
Lack of Pre-Emptive Options
It also must be asked whether current housing law provides tenants with access to adequate remedies, whether or not they have access to legal aid. The law should equip tenants with the ability to compel their landlord to take action when they feel the standards of health and safety, including in relation to fire safety, become unacceptable.
It is however questionable whether the current legal avenues open to tenants allowing them to take pre-emptive action, are sufficient. A brief exploration of some of the existing legal paths, demonstrates the lack of viable options. These include:
- An action for disrepair under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, allowing tenants to take action against their landlord for housing disrepair. As mentioned above, for Grenfell Tower residents, it is questionable whether the issue of fire safety and cladding of the building would have fallen into the definition of disrepair under the Act;
- A claim for negligence against the landlord; such a cause of action will arise only after the event, and would therefore be ineffective in preventing the tragedy witnessed at Grenfell Tower as the damage would have already been done;
- A claim for statutory nuisance under the Environment Protection Act 1990. Under this Act, the local authority must serve an abatement notice on any premises qualifying as a ‘statutory nuisance’, setting out a time by which the nuisance should be remedied. However, this cause of action would again have been ineffective for the Grenfell Tower residents, as in their case, the local authority was the landlord, and therefore cannot take action against themselves. The only option potentially open to the residents was a private prosecution, which would have been costly, and for which legal aid would not have been available;
- Via the Housing Health and Safety Rating System 2004, which imposes a duty on local authorities to investigate complaints in relation to potential hazards within properties. The difficulty with this option for local authority tenants is that it is not effective against local authority landlords, with tenants left with no ability to enforce for themselves other than through the expensive avenue of judicial review.
Repercussions for Greater Manchester
Reactions of grief and anger have been voiced by not only the affected community, but also by the wider community as residents in similarly constructed housing all around Britain justifiably raise concerns about their safety.
Lucy Powell, Labour’s MP for Manchester Central has expressed concerns about housing safety in Manchester and has called for tighter safety regulations in an interview with the Manchester Evening News. She amongst others, have raised concerns that all high-rise buildings should be reviewed, and not just council flats.
“We shouldn’t just be focusing on former council blocks, because in Manchester – particularly in the city centre – we have had a huge increase in the number of high rise blocks,” she said. 
However, steps have already been taken in Greater Manchester to assuage the community’s unrest. Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has set up a scheme headed by Paul Dennett (Mayor of Salford) in which every high-rise building above 6 stories will be reviewed, providing residents reassurance about fire safety standards.
On 23rd June, the Mayor of Salford also announced that cladding used on nine different high-rise blocks in Salford that were a similar material to the ones used to insulate Grenfell Tower would be removed.
Looking at the Law
In spite of this positive action, the fact remains that for residents of high rise blocks in Manchester, and throughout the United Kingdom, the Grenfell Tower tragedy has flagged many worrying issues.
One such issue is the urgent need to look very closely at possible reform of the law, which in its current state demonstrably leaves gaping holes in which tenants are left with little or no ability to bring their landlords to account before, and not after, a tragic event.
It is vital that the law helps tenants to feel safe in their own homes; in its current state, the lack of proper access to justice leaves them vulnerable.
Eimear McCartan is Northern Irish born solicitor. She has been qualified as a solicitor for 6 years, working in both private practice and in-house. She originally did her law degree at Cambridge University and her LPC at BPP Law School in Manchester.
Sam Blewitt is law student beginning his second year of study at Manchester Metropolitan University in September. He is a strong supporter and active campaigner for the GMLC and their tireless campaign for equal access to the justice system and the reinstatement of Legal Aid as a pivotal facet of the Welfare State.
GMLC supports the North Kensington Law Centre's crowdfunding attempt to raise £100,000 to assist victims of the Grenfell tower disaster, and ensure they get access to justice and legal support. You can donate here.
This article has been kindly picked up by LegalVoice – for professional committed to access to justice:
At the start of July, we delivered our open letter to Andy Burnham. We invited him to follow up on discussions we had enjoyed earlier in the year, in which we had proposed a levy on corporate law firms to support free legal advice and representation for the people of Manchester. Since then, around 300 community members have put their name to the open letter, and we have experienced a flurry of discussion and support on social media. We are now engaged in constructive discussions with the Mayor’s office, and we are eager to see where this leads.
Our intention is to reinvigorate discussion around legal aid and funding for those in urgent need of free legal advice and representation. Our letter certainly has been making waves. Signatories include film director Ken Loach, Human Rights lawyer Michael Mansfield QC, local peace activist Dr Erinma Bell MBE, former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish Andrew Gwynne, lawyers and staff from supportive law firms and chambers, and members of other advice agencies across Greater Manchester. We also received a supportive email from Jonathan Reynolds MP, who wants to address the issue in a meeting with Andy Burnham and Caroline Lucas MP tweeted about the GM levy. Hours after publishing our letter online, we featured on the front page of the Solicitors’ Journal, shortly followed by coverage in the Law Society Gazette, and numerous messages of support and inquiry from other news outlets.
This momentum demonstrates a hunger for radical forward thinking. The Solicitors Journal infers that our intention is that “wealthy corporate firms should do their bit for the cuts-stricken advice sector”. In a sense, this is correct. We know that goodwill and generosity exist in the legal sector, as we frequently receive messages, gestures of support, and offers of pro-bono lawyers from firms and chambers. These relationships are invaluable to us. What we are proposing with this levy is a way to convert this goodwill to practical, sustainable, financial support.
Does this mean that we have abandoned our calls for restoration of legal aid? Absolutely not. Access to justice is as fundamental as access to healthcare or education. We continue to demand the restoration of publicly funded legal services. This levy forms part of our wider campaign to meet the advice and representation needs of our community and to put pressure on the government to address the barriers to justice created by legal aid cuts.
We know that to survive, we need to be creative. Our supporters are helping to get our voice heard and to promote viable, innovative means of fighting tor free access to justice. To these supporters we express our gratitude, and it is with hope and determination that we promise to provide updates on this campaign.
// You can still sign our open letter here //