Sir Henry Brooke: “Law Centres: Empowering the disempowered”

One of the most dangerous developments in recent years has been the way in which funding has been slashed for those lawyers who have a public service mission to help the disempowered – very frequently vulnerable people, people suffering from mental or physical disability, or people struggling to cope because of language difficulties. A few years ago I crossed swords with a Lib Dem minister when I suggested that this tendency might lead ultimately to civil disaffection if there was no other means of accessing justice.  Lord Bach’s Commission has been receiving heart-rending evidence about the effect the cuts have had on those who have been effectively deprived of access to the skilled advice they so often need when things start going wrong.

Today, if only it can raise the resources it needs, the North Kensington Law Centre is ideally placed to be the base for much of the legal help that is so badly needed by the survivors of the Grenfell Tower Disaster and for those who have lost members of their families in the fire.  In all the circumstances it seems to be a good moment to devote a blog to giving a snapshot of what is happening more generally in the law centre movement today.

I am indebted to the senior staff of the Law Centres Network for telling me much of what is contained in this blog.  If I have made any mistakes or serious omissions, I hope they may be pointed out to me, so that I can correct them.

In my History of Legal Aid 1949-2010 I wrote:

The first law centre was opened in North Kensington on 17thJuly 1970.  Its lawyers worked with the Notting Hill Residents’ Association. Its aim was to provide

“a first rate solicitors’ service for the people of the North Kensington community; a service which is easily accessible, not intimidating, to which people could turn as they would to the family doctor – or, as someone who could afford it, to the family solicitor.”

Its purpose has remained the same for nearly 50 years now.

In 1970 there were two law centres. Their number grew to 34 in 1980 and to 62 in 1991. They went down to 54 in 2001, and up again to 63 in 2005. They tended to be established – and to survive – in areas where Labour-controlled local authorities provided generous funding support. Many councils had an antipathy to providing funding to an organisation which might take them to court for sub-standard performance. I remember attending the launch of a new law centre in Ealing over 20 years ago – after the merger of some smaller centres – only to hear that it had been wound up within a year after a change in the political control of the council.

Between 2007 and 2011 their numbers dropped to 54, largely because law centres with inadequate reserves went under when new civil legal aid contracts provided for payment to be made in arrears. By 2014, following the introduction of LASPO, the numbers fell again, this time to 45, when those who had survived since 2007 by drawing on their reserves were unable to withstand the steep fall in income when so many fields of work – particularly in the social welfare field – were taken out of scope.

Many other law centres have had to reduce the services they can provide, and they can now help fewer people. On average, law centres lost 40% of their income between 2010 and 2015 (including a cut of over 60% in their legal aid revenue as a direct result of LASPO). Only one in three people now obtain the help and assistance they need[1].  This is a savage indictment of our times.

Since 2013-4, however, the numbers have held more or less steady, despite the additional pressures caused by the local authority spending cuts. In this blog I will describe some of what is going on within the law centre movement today.

Geographically the 43 surviving law centres are very unevenly spread. There are only four in the North-East[2] and five in the North-West[3] (where the recent establishment of the Merseyside and Greater Manchester Law Centres is to some extent compensating for the closure three years ago of the Trafford, South Manchester and Wythenshawe Law Centres, and others before that). In the Midlands there are four[4]. In the West, there are also four[5]. In the South-East (including East Anglia) there are two outside London[6]. In contrast, there are 21 in Greater London[7]. There is one in Wales (Cardiff) and two in Northern Ireland.

Developments over the last four years have included the following:

  • In 2013-4 the Coalition Government stopped all its funding support for the Law Centres Network [LCN]. 16 major trusts now fund LCN’s activities.
  • LCN commissioned advice on the way in which law centres might charge for some services in order to achieve long-term sustainability. About six, including North Kensington, are now charging some clients at fees which are fixed at as low a level as is economically sustainable [8]. Others started, but often stopped because they were not generating enough funds to cover the cost.
  • Now that many local authorities have cut back their funding for advice services, LCN has provided funding consultants to support law centres in writing bids for funding support, either locally or regionally. UK-wide fundraising support helped to raise £2.8 million for law centres and their partners in 2015-6.
  • LCN obtained a €400,000 grant from the European Commission for the Living Rights project (which involves 5 law centres and 5 partners)[9]. Currently 12 law centres are engaged in EU-funded projects, alongside 7 partner agencies.  Brexit will destroy this source of funding.
  • LCN has encouraged law firms to take on new projects, new partners and new ways of working[10]. It also advises law centres when large funders, such as the Big Lottery, change their funding strategies.
  • LCN has helped policy-makers, commissioners and funders to recognise the power of the law as a tool for positive change.
  • In 2013 LCN was awarded the national Upper Tribunal legal aid welfare benefits contract. This is now managed by the Harrow and Central England Law Centres, and 8 law centres across the country are involved.
  • 5 London law centres are taking part in new pro bono clinics which are targeted on specific topics [11]
  • The LCN has negotiated the provision of LexisNexis [LN] online resources for all law centres, and a 35% discount for law centres on LN printed materials. It has also set up a national professional indemnity policy for law centres.
  • A national upgrade of law centres’ ICT infrastructure is now in progress.[12] The LCN is upgrading law centres’ IT systems nationally. Nine so far, and it is now helping another 15.
  • In 2015-6 LCN provided 23 low-fee training sessions for law centres which covered topics like fundraising; legal aid contract management; law updates (e.g. housing or community care law). It has also launched an online learning hub, a themed resource which is updated regularly;
  • LCN has updated the Law Centres Quality Manual, so as to ensure that law centres continue to adhere to Lexcel 6 requirements.[13]

Thriving law centres are using different models, and legal advice is regularly slotted into broader community work.

In Coventry a specialist legal adviser, based at the law centre, worked directly with the clients of the local authority’s Troubled Families scheme who needed legal advice. It also collaborated with a local charity on a Youth Migrant project.

Southwark has established a good division of labour with the Southwark CAB[14]. Southwark also supports a day centre for asylum seekers at which they will be able to supply advice to those who ask for it.

At Coventry, they have a protocol to identify the point at which people should be signposted towards the law centre. They have developed software which can be used by any advice centre in Coventry. The client’s case is added, and through a triage system all the details are fed into the system. The local authority has funded someone to monitor the service. He/she sees that a case will be taken on by a lawyer within 24 hours, and the lawyer who receives the reference then has to account for what has happened. Other agencies can then see what has happened.

They are using the same model in Avon and Bristol. It would be excellent if this could be replicated elsewhere.

In Greater Manchester [GM] the GM Immigration Service worked with other agencies to create the new GM Law Centre. They received some money from a community trust. A number of co-producers developed the new law centre. They now have a Justice Fellow as a trainee. The GM Law Centre is a solid model.

The Hackney Law Centre is planning to develop a very simple system, to remind people of their appointment and of the papers they need to bring with them. This will be done by text message because most people have mobile phones even if they do not use the internet. It is receiving pro bono help from Freshfields.

In Hackney they are also hoping to develop a different model, with the help of pro bono support from Freshfields and Big Lottery funding. This is designed to help with First Tier welfare benefit appeals, to assist non-legal advice agencies which have no welfare benefits expertise.

On the LCN website are listed the different advice resources that are available on the Internet. Citizens Advice do not do this. They have invested resource into a particular way of giving advice. They do not add: “If this doesn’t help, try ….”

Every law centre now has to explain what it is doing. At long last they are all using the same logo. Adherence to the law centres’ brand is important.

Some advice agencies want to become law centres. LCN insists that they must have two lawyers, and there must be quality control.

The bulk of the service must be free. And they must be independent – not tied, for instance, to a trade union.

All in all, our law centres are a very bright jewel in an often very depressing world.  they need all the help and support their local communities – and local lawyers with a sense of corporate social responsibility – can give them.

 

Thank you to Sir Henry Brooke for this article on the importance of Law Centres everywhere; for the original article click here