“Going against the grain”- Counsel Magazine, April 2017

Greater Manchester Law Centre has opened against the odds and is the third new centre to join the legal aid network post-LASPO. Barristers were integral to its success and John Nicholson outlines the journey – urging the Bar to join the wider campaign for law centres

Ken Loach’s I Daniel Blake paints a clear picture of Britain today.

People are facing greater and greater hardship as a result of cuts in benefits, homelessness, work uncertainties and escalating racism. Meanwhile legal aid – an essential part of the justice system – has been cut again and again. People facing the problems above are least able to pay for a lawyer, even if they can find one. Those most in need are those most deprived of access to justice.

Likewise, younger people cannot easily become social welfare lawyers when overwhelmed by student debt – and there are fewer job opportunities even for those who might want to work in legal aid. The new Greater Manchester Law Centre exists to challenge all this. Across the 10 districts of the county of Greater Manchester there used to be nine law centres. Following government and council cuts, just two are left (Bury and Rochdale in the north).

Taking the (barristerial) lead

South Manchester Law Centre (SMLC) struggled to survive the contracts and cuts regimes from 2010-14 and was defended pro bono by barristers at Kenworthy’s Chambers in Salford. When SMLC finally closed, we decidedto see if there was a wider commitment to re-establishing law centres locally. Kenworthy’s, committed to legal aid work, provided a base for our meetings, office space for our first development workers, and offered to organise a fundraiser and make their own financial contribution.

Barristers can offer a practical and authoritative lead in getting others to come together. We held our first public meeting, attended by 60 lawyers, advice workers and community groups,and set up a campaign for access to justice for all.We said that the downward spiral cannot be allowed to continue and declared publicly: ‘With your help there will be a law centre for Greater Manchester.’ There is now.

How we did it

We had no funds. We had no premises. But we had the commitment of people who share our view – that free, independent and high-quality advice is crucial for those in need – and were prepared to put their own time and money towards it.We created an email list. We established a steering group (includinglawyers, voluntary sector managers and trade unionists). We agreed that we needed a constitution. We wrote a business plan and sought start-up funding.

There were, of course, huge obstacles. Greater Manchester (which isn’t just ‘Manchester’) is an area which is disproportionately poor. Child poverty rates are among the highest in the country. And Greater Manchester has become the flagship for a form of ‘devolution’ – joining the 10 councils to the local NHS, delegating an estimated £2bn health shortfall to the already cash-strapped local authorities. There are well-researched positive health outcomes from providing people with high-quality legal advice, but there isn’t so much clear money to pay for it through this ‘GM’ cropping.

Not everywhere has to contend with this particular mix. But our stand against cuts and closures may encourage others and, if we can do it against these odds, then…

Our PFI model

First, there was the ‘inextricable circle’ – without services, you don’t get funding. Without funding, you can’t get premises. Without premises, there aren’t any services. The trick is to do it all at once.

Second, we wanted to develop one particular service. Without a supervising solicitor, insurance, advice manuals or even a computer, it is difficult. Volunteer advisers may not be available during working hours. So we advertised, found part-time and retired advisers, trained them, and got a local firm of solicitors to take on supervision.

Third, we had to beg a building, furniture to go in it, andmanage it. This can take over everything else. You can forget you are trying to deliver services (never mind advocating more generally) because you have to overcome the obstacles of utility suppliers and their competition companies all trying to sell the same alarm, intercoms, security, lift, water, refuse, sanitary and cleaning services. You also need to find, induct, train and manage office volunteers, who can not only open the door but help give general information and direction to anyone calling. People started coming in with plastic bags of documents, desperate for anyone who could listen to their problems, before we were even open.Referrals to us have varied widely – the police sent someone to us because they had lost their coat.

Fourth, we had to manage an organisation. There has been a huge commitment by a few volunteer managers, several of us trying to maintain full-time legal aid practice at the same time. But if you say you want to do it, you can. We sought out sessional solicitors and set about weaving a tapestry of different funding sources, from the generosity and commitment of individuals, lawyers, trades unions, community groups, universities and charitable trusts (notably Tudor Trust, AB Charitable Trust and the Legal Education Foundation). We successfully gained a supervising solicitor post for three years and a development manager for 18 months and attracted over 500 supporters to our email list, including over 50 core volunteer advisers, fundraisers and office volunteers.

Fifth, we have sought sustainability. By using pro bono barristers and solicitors, using students and volunteers, we intend to support the advice we give without needing to rely on the restrictive nature of declining state contracts. Volunteers are the backbone of the law centre. We will only sustain it through individual and community efforts of people doing it for ourselves.

That’s our PFI model – ‘Paid For Itself’.

Getting the community on side

Crucially we needed community support. We held two local public meetings in Moss Side before we moved in to see if people were in favour. They were. Unanimously. The local newsagent will not let us pay for milk when we go into the shop, and the Nubian coffee shop delivers us patties and drinks.

Over 500 people attended our opening event on 11 February which was held at the nearby West Indian Sports and Social Centre, after a short march with banner and placards from the centre itself. Local patrons Robert Lizar (long-time legal-aid lawyer in Moss Side) and Dr Erinma Bell MBE DL (community activist and prominent justice campaigner) cut the ribbon – of ‘No Access to Justice’ – by declaring that there will be access to justice, here, because we say there will. We then heard from our national patrons Michael Mansfield QC, who called for more community-led law centres, and actor Maxine Peake (our very own North-West lawyer as seen on TV in Silk), while the Holy Name Primary School entertained us with their steel band and the choir of WAST (Women Asylum Seekers Together) called for freedom and justice for all.

Demanding access to advice

We are not just a law centre, but a campaign for law centres, access to the legal system, properly funded legal aid and for justice. To encourage a new generation of publicly funded social welfare lawyers, we have set up a Legal Academic Services Board of the five local universitylaw departments and colleges. Their students will be volunteering with us and representing appellants at the tribunal – a scheme following the Avon and Bristol Law Centre, which, as with other law centres, has been very helpful in guiding our development. We aren’t just looking for pro-bono lawyer support, vital though that is at present, to keep open the channel to legal aid. We also want their (and your) structural and long-term financial commitment. Our Lawyer Fund Generation Scheme calls on all lawyers in private practice in Greater Manchester to give us 0.5% of their salary – and to get their own firms to do likewise. We aim to be around for a long time to come.

What (Greater) Manchester does today…

Contributor John Nicholson, Kenworthy’s Chambers, is Chair of the GMLC. If you are interested in supporting us email ku.gr1508377610o.wal1508377610mg@of1508377610ni1508377610; see www.gmlaw.org.uk and read Frances Ryan in The Guardian at bit.ly/2mJzles