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AS the legal aid scheme turns 70 this year, it’s time to reflect on what has recently been a deeply damaging and tumultuous period.
The government’s own figures show that in the past six years, half of all law centres and not-for-profit legal advice services in England and Wales have closed.
This has led to swathes of the general public unable to access the specialised advice that was once available. In this period, Ministry of Justice funding for law centres through legal aid contracts dropped from £12.1 million to £7.1m.
Human rights lawyer and president of Liverpool Law Society Chris Topping said: “One of the major impacts of the cuts in legal aid has been on the number of trained solicitors who are able to do legal aid work.
“As graduates now leave universities and law school with substantial debt, they are looking for secure employment.
“In the legal aid sector everything is so vulnerable, with a lack of job security and rates of pay that are substantially lower compared to other areas of work.”
He said this is coupled with a skills gap. Where once welfare benefits law was studied as a set module, it isn’t any longer: “If you’ve not studied it, why would you go for a job where you need to be an expert in it?”
This is why schemes such as Justice First Fellowship are useful, as they allow for the pay and costs of a trainee solicitor to be covered.
This means they can be paid regardless of the centre’s financial position. While they are working at a centre, they would work on projects designed to try and secure funding for the future, so the organisation can then employ them as a solicitor.
While such schemes are valuable, overall there has been a negative impact on staff and would-be solicitors — and the picture for clients is even worse.
This was reinforced when the announcement was made on July 15 that Lambeth Law Centre, which served a large part of south London was to close, citing financial pressures caused by cuts in legal aid and increased operating costs.
Mark George QC, head of chambers at Garden Court North, said it was “a terrible day” for the poor and disadvantaged the centre had served so well.
Of course, it isn’t just by chance that the cuts to legal aid have happened just as many people were dealing with the direct and indirect consequences of austerity.
With further turmoil due to a possible no-deal Brexit on the horizon, specialised advice and advisers will be in demand — but services are now scarce.
This can be shown in an interactive map produced by the Law Society to show the “desert areas” where there is no provision for housing legal advice.
It concentrated on housing advice because of the danger of people being evicted due to not having access to specialist legal aid advice and it being an area which is still within the legal aid framework.
Cutting legal aid and the tightening of parameters of who can obtain help was a political choice and until we have a change of government or a concerted commitment on the ground from local authorities and other bodies, it’s hard to see how this situation will improve.
Labour policy commitment for legal aid is unequivocal. It will overturn the cuts, including restoring legal aid funding for those appealing benefit decisions.
As shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: “Flawed benefit decisions create unnecessary hardship, stress and anxiety for people already in desperate need due to illness, unemployment or disability.
“Yet legal support against dodgy benefits decisions has fallen off a cliff-edge — down 99 per cent — at a time when people need it even more.”
Helping to inform this policy was Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC), among others. Indeed, responding to the GMLC manifesto launch, Burgon wrote: “I want a government to usher in a golden era of law centres. To empower the single parent to fight back against the ‘lousy landlord’; to empower the worker to fight back against the bullying boss; to empower the migrant to fight back against the immoral and unjustifiable decision of the Home Office; and to empower the disabled person to fight back against a cruel DWP ruling.”
So, who are GMLC? They are a law centre that’s been open to the public for the past three years.
They’ve represented homeless people resisting eviction from a hostel and battled to enforce their rights to accommodation from the council.
It has fought alongside tenants taking on rogue landlords and has recovered over £2 million for people wrongly denied benefits.
In the wake of the Windrush scandal, GMLC stood in solidarity with the local community and gave information to people threatened by the hostile environment.
GMLC also campaigns with others for change, including being a vocal critic of the proposed public space protection order, which is currently being considered by Manchester City Council.
Like other law centres, GMLC is operating under the constant vulnerability of scarce resources and has renewed its pleas for much-needed funding for free and independent legal advice and representation by personally appealing to all Greater Manchester MPs and council leaders.
In these letters GMLC chairman John Nicholson pointed to the attacks on those people most in need of free and independent advice as well as the depth of the crisis facing the voluntary sector in Greater Manchester, which has been striving to provide what help it can.
Under these current precarious conditions, it’s hard to see how free and independent advice through legal aid would last the next few years, let alone celebrate another significant birthday. That’s why it is so urgent we have a change of government.
Until that time, we are in danger of losing such valuable resources which not only provide representation but, like GMLC, are campaigning for better treatment of their clients.
Find out more about GMLC — its manifesto, job vacancies and how you can get involved: www.gmlaw.org.uk.
Chris Topping is a human rights lawyer at Broudie Jackson Canter: www.jacksonlees.co.uk/broudiejacksoncanter and Ruth F Hunt is an author and freelance journalist.
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