We have a monthly column in the Law Society Messenger. You can see the full January edition here.
This month, GMLC volunteer Arwa Graf gives her perspective of GMLC’s work and vision.
I’m currently in my final year of the LLB at Manchester Metropolitan University. I began volunteering at GMLC when I was 18, during my first year at university. I have various roles at the Law Centre, but I started my journey as one of the front of house volunteers. Situated in reception, I will be the first port of call to any person contacting GMLC. I deal with all enquires and I will either book the client, provide important information or refer them to another organisation that can help. This means that I have been exposed to the reality of our broken, (unjust) justice system.
Two years of volunteering at GMLC has taught me a great deal about the legal profession and the benefits system. There are many different experiences that have helped me progress and learn more about the justice system. However, one of the hardest obstacles was overcoming my emotions when working with the people who come to us. Nothing can prepare you for the horrors that people go through, or the battles they must face. No manual or book helps you to understand their difficulties until you see it yourself. You’re left with a person who has lost almost all hope, and they see you as the only one left who might be able to help.
At GMLC we deal with housing, welfare benefits and employment law. People come to us with a variety of issues. The man drowning in debt because the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) decided that they overpaid his benefits 9 years ago. The woman who is facing homelessness, because she can no longer pay her rent. Her benefits are in disarray, and she’s now forced to challenge the decisions made by the DWP. Bear in mind, she’s six months pregnant. The man whose Employment and Support Allowance has been stopped, even though he lives with severe disabilities alongside mental health issues. He’s telling you he wants to end his life, because he’s alone and he can’t take it anymore. The woman who is bullied at work. Her colleagues look down on here because she’s an immigrant, but she can’t say anything because she’s worried she’ll lose her job. The 17-year old girl calling on behalf of her mother. Her mother doesn’t speak much English, but they’ve stopped their benefits and they need urgent legal advice. Her daughter is now calling every organisation she can think of, hoping someone can help.
It can be difficult to understand the complexities of some people’s problems. However, it is far more frustrating when we are unable to meet the need.
We punch way above our weight. All our volunteers are working around the clock. We survive on donations and the generosity of our community. We have reclaimed over £1.5 million in benefits for people wrongly denied them since we opened in 2016. Often, we are able to handle the multifaceted difficulties that people are faced with: for example, we worked with the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit to successfully challenge the DWP for demanding £30,000 in benefits repayments from a person falsely classified as having no leave to remain.
However, we can’t always help, because we can’t cover that specific area of law, or we don’t have the capacity to take on more cases. For example, we are able to provide free employment law clinics with experienced legal professionals, and we will be fully booked by 3pm on the same day we open appointments. I try everything and make all the calls I can. We rely on donations, and we need more support from the legal sector, lawyers, and the local authority.
There is an incredibly high demand, but not nearly enough resources to meet the need for legal advice and representation. And sometimes, there is nothing we could do even with resources, because the way that people are treated is in accordance with law and policy.
This is why we must do more than scrabble to meet the need. As well as fighting to provide these vital services, we must continue our movement and take a stand against injustice. Campaigning is vital to ensure that we not only challenge decisions in courts, but we aim to change law and policy. It is an essential part of the work we do at the Law Centre. As we see in the media, there are far too many miscarriages of justice, and it can seem like a difficult task. However, the passion and hard work shown by so many legal aid lawyers is truly extraordinary. Against all the odds, we have shown resilience, grit and the desire to make our country a better place for so many. We must continue in our fight for access to justice. There are mountains to climb, but there is hope.
GMLC is a beacon of hope for many in our community. It was built by the community, for the community. It’s empowering to know that we are an independent organisation, here to fight for free access to justice, to fight for everyone. Our work is never over, and we want to continue providing services to the people who need us. We are incredibly grateful to every person who has supported us, but we still need your help. Whether you wish to volunteer, donate or spread the message, we need all the support we can get!
Please, support the Greater Manchester Law Centre. Go to gmlaw.org.uk to donate, volunteer, and find out more.