Britain’s second biggest city could be without a law centre by the end of this month unless funding can be found to keep it afloat.
Birmingham Law Centre is descended from bodies that have offered free legal advice and representation for nearly 100 years.
Its five solicitors and 15 paralegal and support staff assist around 2,000 clients a year. The board of trustees last week concluded that unless the centre’s financial situation changes dramatically it may not be able to remain open past the end of January.
The centre receives no local authority funding. Representatives lobbied councillors yesterday and will meet the leader of Birmingham City Council, Albert Bore, next week to ask for help.
But the council is facing its own financial crisis, including a possible £200m bill for sex discrimination claims following the Supreme Court’s equal pay ruling in October last year.
Birmingham Law Centre’s chief executive, Pete Lowen, said that legal aid cuts were having a massive impact on the centre’s finances. He told the Gazette that the centre has applied for housing and immigration contracts, which begin in April, but needs funds to tide it over until then.
Lowen said that the centre ‘has a robust plan for a viable future, but we may not have enough time to implement it because of our current position’.
Patron and Labour peer Lord Hunt of Kings Heath of said: ‘It is almost impossible to contemplate the demise of an organisation that is so important to so many people in their fight to lift themselves out of poverty, debt and homelessness. We are working hard to try and secure sustainable funding but the cuts to legal support for some of our most vulnerable are proving exceptionally challenging.’
If the centre was to close, Birmingham would be the only city in the UK unable to provide free access to expert legal help for its most vulnerable citizens, Hunt said.
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, said: ‘BLC is a big and much-needed centre. There is no other law centre in Birmingham, which is the second biggest city in the country and has huge areas of deprivation.’
She told the Gazette: ‘What’s happening to Birmingham will happen to other centres too, I’m sure. We are holding our breath; we know some centres won’t survive, but we don’t know which they’ll be.’
Bishop added: ‘While we face the year with trepidation, we’re planning to continue serving clients as well as we can within the limited resources.’
The law centre has started an online petition.