Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Centres in a storm

Steven Hynes says law centres are under threat

December 12, 2010
8 min read


Steven Hynes is director of the Legal Action Group and co-author of The Justice Gap: whatever happened to legal aid?


  share     tweet  

The law centres movement was born more than 40 years ago to provide ‘justice for all’, but is now facing considerable challenges. Law centres are usually based in poor and marginalised communities, providing legal advice and specialist casework in areas such as benefits, housing, employment and immigration. They are run by management committees mainly drawn from the communities they serve.

Though there have never been that many law centres (there were 60 until recent closures), they are popular with their clients, many of whom wouldn’t dream of setting foot in a high street solicitors’ office. They have been influential in providing legal help to those sections of the community who need it most but are least likely to find it. With their community governance and localised services, they are perhaps obvious candidates for reinvention as the legal services’ wing of David Cameron’s ‘big society’ – yet their numbers continue to decline.

CLAS war

In September, Manchester’s two law centres announced that they might have to close. Some seven centres have closed in the last three years and four more are under immediate threat of closure (including the two in Manchester). Manchester City Council and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) had decided to reconfigure the cash they currently spend on legal advice services into a competitive tender to create what is known as a CLAS or community legal advice service. The tender was won by the city-wide Citizens Advice Bureau service, in partnership with private law firms and an independent advice centre. The council and the LSC argue that the new service, which will operate from six venues in the city, will provide better ‘joined-up’ services to Manchester residents. As a consequence, they intend to withdraw funding from South Manchester and Wythenshawe law centres.

Based in Longsight, a deprived, ethnically diverse part of the city, South Manchester law centre has been established for 36 years. Paul Morris, an immigration case worker at the centre, told the Legal Action Group that he and its 14 other staff got their redundancy notices soon after the result of the tender was announced. Morris fears that the centre’s clients will be ‘driven to sharks and charlatans’ if it is forced to close. The law centre has launched a campaign to persuade the council and the LSC to continue supporting it. ‘We are not going down without a fight,’ says Morris.

Gillian Hodges, senior solicitor at Wythenshawe law centre, says that while the centre has not issued redundancy notices to its seven staff yet, it is at ‘serious risk of closing’. The centre has been running for 26 years in Wythenshawe, one of the largest council estates in the country. It is believed to have scored higher than the successful bidders on quality but its management committee chairman, Bernard Caine, says ‘the council and the LSC have chosen lower cost over quality and it is local residents, including our own families and friends, that will suffer’.

The Manchester CLAS, along with one in Wakefield, is the latest addition to the half dozen such services now up and running. The previous government and the LSC were keen to establish new networks but many local authorities have refused to play ball because the tendering process has proved time intensive, risks losing established not-for-profit organisations and brings little tangible benefit to clients. These new arrangements have so far led to the closure of Leicester and Gateshead law centres. Hull Citizens Advice Bureau, one of the oldest and largest bureaux in the country, was also nearly forced to close when it failed to win a tender for a CLAS two years ago. It is now operating a much reduced service. The LSC’s own research evaluating the already established services was equivocal on whether CLAS improved on what they replaced.

Community links

Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Federation, insists that it is not all doom and gloom. Three new centres are being established by local communities and will be officially launched soon. Bishop sees their future as embracing the ‘big society’ agenda. She argues that law centres need to become better at sharing support costs for their services but ‘need to keep their local community links as they are the community response to legal issues’.

Streetwise community law centre was founded ten years ago in Bromley, south London. It was established to meet the demand for legal advice for young people. Patrick Friel is a former client of the law centre, who now sits on its management committee. He credits its help with turning his life around. When he was 16 he faced being made homeless after being refused housing benefit. The centre was able to successfully challenge the decision. Friel has since become an advocate for law centres. Speaking at a fringe meeting on legal aid at the Liberal Democrat conference in September, Friel said: ‘I was inspired by the staff at the law centre. They were prepared always to go that extra yard for clients like me – without them I would have literally been on the street.’

Paul Morris can see ‘no good reason’ why a service ‘praised and appreciated by the community it serves’ should be forced to close. He argues that no money will be saved by establishing the new service as the council and the LSC are putting the same amount of cash into it. The Legal Action Group believes that the CLAS policy amounts to change for change’s sake with scant regard for long established services that are forced to fold for no demonstrable benefits for clients.

A green paper is expected soon on the future of the legal aid system. This could be an opportunity for law centres to put forward a strategy that links with the ‘big society’ policy agenda. Some of the cash from the legal aid system could be used to create a central grants pot to match with local council and other funding to establish new law centres and maintain the existing ones. Without this or some other new thinking on paying for these services, more law centres will be forced to close, leaving many communities without accessible, good quality legal services.


‘A new public service’: the birth of law centres

‘Nothing less than the introduction of a new public service to operate alongside, and supplement, the private profession would suffice to deal adequately with the problem of providing proper legal services to a section of the public who went short of them,’ wrote Michael Zander QC, emeritus professor of law at the LSE, about law centres in 1978. Zander was the author of the Society of Labour Lawyers’ seminal pamphlet Justice for All (1968), which led directly to the establishment of the first law centre two years later.

Taking the law to the kind of communities that were excluded from legal services was the main purpose of law centres and so, fittingly, the first centre opened in a butcher’s shop on a run-down street in west London at the north end of Portobello Road in 1970. This was pre-gentrification Notting Hill, where the new immigrants rubbed along uneasily with white working class communities living in substandard housing, much of which was provided by notorious landlords such as Peter Rachman. It was a world vividly captured in a 1974 World in Action film called ‘Law Shop’, which labelled the semi-derelict network of terrace houses in the shadow of the new A40 Westway a ‘slum area’.

The creation of a network of law centres was a highly idealistic attempt to take the law to the socially excluded and an antidote to fusty solicitors’ offices considered then to be stuck in a 1950s time-warp. Many solicitors recoiled at this new breed of legal radicals. In its 1973 annual report, the Law Society saw them as a subversive means of ‘stirring up political and quasi-political confrontation far removed from ensuring equal access to the protection of the law’.

Law centres were ‘a radical attempt to change the delivery of legal services’, according to Roger Smith, director of Justice. He joined the Camden centre in 1973 before becoming director of West Hampstead in 1975. ‘The idea was that law centres were going to be about systematic change and not just “sticking plaster” legal services,’ he says. ‘These were organisations that, through their work in the community and their work in the courts, wanted to change the world. It was highly idealistic.’ A generation of committed young lawyers began their careers in law centres, including Paul Boateng and Harriet Harman.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Steven Hynes is director of the Legal Action Group and co-author of The Justice Gap: whatever happened to legal aid?


#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


1