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