This is the first in a series of snapshots from our Annual Report, which was presented at our AGM 28th September 2017.
In the Chair’s Report, John Nicholson describes how far we have come.
After the closure of South Manchester Law Centre in 2014 we said: if enough people wanted a Law Centre, there would be one.
In 2016 we opened the doors of 159 Princess Road to the public. There was one.
In 2017 we are building on what we have done and planning how to do more.
There have been many successes – we have law students winning appeals for people who have lost their benefits. These students have gone on to secure places as trainee barristers, and they take GMLC’s message with them as they become part of the next generation of social welfare lawyers.
We have volunteer advisers, week in week out, helping people to avoid and appeal the loss of their Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP). We have frontline volunteers welcoming people into the Centre, listening to them (which is often exactly what no one has done before), and trying to help them find a service. And we have sessional solicitors giving up their own time to give specialist advice on issues such as employment and community care.
When long term Moss Side human rights lawyer Robert Lizar and community activist Erinma Bell unveiled our official plaque and cut the ribbon (which said “no access”), we were hugely pleased to see more than 500 people come to our official opening in February 2017. When Michael Mansfield followed up our General Election survey with his own Election Special, we were likewise grateful for him saying that the grass roots campaign like ours was the way things should be organised. And when Maxine Peake came to listen to our black volunteers talk about the escalating racism they have experienced, we were overwhelmed with visitors to our website watching her Guardian film set at GMLC and publicised widely. Thanks to all our Patrons for their continuing support.
But people remain in vulnerable circumstances, and this is why we campaign on wider issues. We celebrated when the Supreme Court ruled that the Government was wrong to charge for Employment Tribunals, but vicious benefits sanctions remain, and the likely appalling consequences of Universal Credit are looming ahead. The new Mayor of Greater Manchester has made clear his commitment to ending homelessness, but there is a long way to go before there is enough affordable housing for people in need. We will demand justice for the residents of Grenfell Towers just as we do for the Hillsborough families and the Orgreave miners, and we will demand that action is taken to prevent any such tragedy taking place in Greater Manchester.
In other words, we will continue to do what we said we would this year – fighting together for free access to justice.
We want to make sure that anyone in any of the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester has access to face-to-face advice – not just over the phone or computer. We are pleased to be discussing the future of Greater Manchester legal advice funding with the new Greater Manchester Combined Authority and with supportive law firms. Our Legal Academic Services Board continues to bring the law schools together, so that their students can work with GMLC to represent people in appeals and tribunals, and get involved in our local campaigns.
This year has also seen us promote the campaign for Legal Aid generally. While volunteers increasingly offer their time and energy, we are not going to let the Government off the hook. We will continue to work with others, so that the political parties, the elected representatives, the lawyers’ firms, the Universities, the Trades Unions and the community campaigns can join with us in putting pressure on the decision makers to put Legal Aid back into its place as an essential part of the Welfare State. Our message has been shared in legal journals, such as Counsel and the Haldane Society’s Socialist Lawyer, and in progressive law publications such as Legal Action and the Justice Gap, as well as in the mainstream Guardian Comment. We will continue this media activity and similarly encourage the Law Centre Network to take up their campaigns for law centres generally – and thank them for their support of our own development.
Specifically this coming year we want our lawyers (paid and unpaid) to begin to take Strategic Litigation, or what we are also calling Legal Campaigning. This means that as well as supporting individuals through their own appeals, we want to challenge and change the legislation and policy behind welfare and housing issues. A positive result could mean changing the new and deeply flawed Universal Credit scheme, which would help people far beyond our current reach. Our Annual General Meeting in 2017 is devoted to this theme. We call upon supportive lawyers to get involved with this kind of work (not just to donate their money – welcome though that is!). We work with other campaigns and Trades Unions who are challenging the adverse effects of Government welfare laws, because we will not win in the courtroom without the pressure of the campaign outside.
And this will need money – lots of it. Without Legal Aid, without rich financiers, we rely on the ordinary support of ordinary people and ordinary community groups, to help us make a reality of free access to justice.
We knew that the protest started with a few of us, furious with what had happened to law centres and advice services generally in this area. We knew that this could not be maintained unless lots more people became involved and took the fight for free access to advice and representation out into new audiences, and new generations of possible social welfare lawyers, and new areas of Greater Manchester. Now we know that it is possible – and with the continuing help and support (time and money!) there will be legal challenges to the iniquity and injustice facing so many people.
Thank you, everyone, and lets together keep up this fight!