Last week’s London Legal Walk, coming weeks after swingeing legal aid cuts were introduced, could be read as a show of strength by the whole legal community. 

Some 7,500 lawyers and staff from firms, legal departments and chambers of all sizes walked to raise funds to support local advice agencies. At the time of writing, an impressive £575,000 was raised. But that in no way comes near the amount taken out of scope by ministers.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into effect on 1 April. As is well-known, the new rules mean that the amount of legal aid funding available in civil cases is severely curtailed, as many areas of law have been taken out of scope, which in turn will have a detrimental impact on the services law centres provide to local people. For example, fewer aspects of immigration law – which is the mainstay of law centres’ work and often not handled by lawyers working pro bono – are ‘in scope’ for legal aid funding.

The government acted to cut £350m from the civil legal aid budget, and its own estimates indicate that about 600,000 people will lose access to advice and legal representation as a result. Moreover, changes to the welfare and benefits system and the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’ are likely to bring in more queries from people wanting to challenge decisions relating to how their benefit payments have been calculated, but who will not be able to get the help they need as the advice work may not be funded.

So law centres are struggling just when their services are needed most. Birmingham Law Centre (pictured), for example, is at risk of closure as the city council has refused to grant it financial assistance. Brent Community Law Centre, in north London, has lost three staff members because of funding cuts and warns that legal aid cuts are hitting the most vulnerable residents the hardest. Like many, it continues to provide legal help, but at a reduced capacity. In March, Cross Street Law Centre in Erith, Kent, said that it would no longer offer drop-in advice to people who have benefits, debt, housing or employment issues. It is a story repeated in law centres across England.

Early days

But Julie Bishop, director at umbrella body the Law Centres Network, says that ‘it is still too early to tell what the real, long-term impact of LASPO might be on law centres’. This is partly because residual funding from cases that were started before 1 April is still coming through. Bishop says that the present situation is mixed: ‘Some law centres have been able to plan ahead and diversify their funding, while others are trying to partner with other local organisations to jointly provide services. It is still early days.’

Some law centres have been fortunate. Using funding from Bristol City Council, Avon and Bristol Law Centre opened a one-stop service in March to help local people who are victims of discrimination. ‘At a time when other local authorities are cutting back on their funding for advice services, we congratulate Bristol City Council on having the foresight to grant-fund this new service,’ centre solicitor Will Stone says.

Gus Hoyt, cabinet member for environment, communities and equalities at Bristol City Council, says: ‘When economic times are challenging, the most vulnerable people in our communities are often the worst affected. By grant-funding Avon and Bristol Law Centre’s Tackling Discrimination Service, not only will victims of discrimination receive the advice and support they need, but we will gain a better understanding of discrimination in the city so that we can work with our partners to improve access to goods, services and employment for all.’

Other law centres have taken contingency measures early, taking the view that it was only a matter of time before legal aid and local authority funding dried up. Harrow Law Centre was only set up in April 2010 and has eight staff. Director Pamela Fitzpatrick says: ‘We knew which way the wind was blowing and we made a deliberate effort not to be reliant on single sources for key funding.’ Instead, Harrow has secured funding from Lloyds TSB for welfare benefits advice. However, this is not enough. Fitzpatrick notes: ‘Demand for help in this area has increased and we are seeing more people than we thought. Our welfare benefits worker is snowed under, frankly.’

While Harrow may have made a good call in looking for alternative sources of funding early, Fitzpatrick admits that ‘it is a full-time job looking for money. If you have multiple funders, then you have multiple monitoring,’ she says. ‘Some of the funding only lasts for a year, while other funding lasts for three years at best, so there is no certainty that we can afford to run. We have always operated on a shoestring anyway but I can only think that the situation is going to get worse. Our local authority has responded well to welfare reform, but the problem is that it has no money to give out either, because its funding has been cut.’ Fitzpatrick is also adamant that ‘we will never charge for our services – the people who need our help simply can’t afford to pay and if we try to impose a fee, it will simply drive people away’.

Cut by half

Like other law centres, Cumbria has seen its funding cut substantially – by as much as 50%. In the last year it has lost legal aid funding for employment issues, debt and welfare benefits, and its housing budget has been cut in half. But Pete Moran, development officer at Cumbria Law Centre, says that the onset of LASPO made the centre reconsider what its priorities were. ‘The changes to legal aid made us ask ourselves what our core service was – were we a legal aid service, or were we a legal service that provided people with access to justice, irrespective of where the funding came from? Once we had agreed that we were the latter, we looked to move from being reliant on legal aid and set about looking for other funders and how we should approach bids for grants.’

So far, the plan is paying off: Cumbria has managed to secure funding from a fourth local authority, and has increased the number of small funders from four to 15. The centre has also partnered with a major local housing association to provide an onsite welfare benefits and debt advice service for residents. It has also successfully teamed up with the Citizens Advice bureau in Carlisle to receive £270,000 worth of Lottery funding through the Advice Services Transition Fund over the next two years.

‘We see the benefits of getting money from a broader range of funders,’ says Moran. ‘It means that we can provide a good mix of services and maintain quality, and that we are less likely to face serious hardships if one source of funding disappears.’ Chesterfield Law Centre has also had to rethink, says the centre’s co-ordinator Teresa Waldron. While it is still fortunate to receive funding from four local authorities, the centre is conscious that this is unlikely to last forever. ‘We are now doing more partnership working and partnership bidding for funding,’ says Waldron. ‘So far, it is working out but everyone is applying for the same pot of money.’

The law centre, working with partners Chesterfield Citizens Advice Bureau, North East Derbyshire Citizens Advice Bureau, and Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres, has just found out their bid to the Big Lottery’s Advice Services Transition Fund for £343,000 has been successful. The money will be used to: introduce a joint digital referral system for four advice agencies and three local authorities to improve people’s pathway to advice services; test a joint pilot on new delivery of advice and casework service through recruiting and training legal intern caseworkers; and provide employment advice and casework.

Charging options

More controversially, the funding will also be used to undertake feasibility studies looking at charging models, and the benefits of advice agencies sharing services, resources and premises. ‘We are piloting a charging scheme for employment law advice, but we are not happy about it – we have been delivering free advice in this area since 1989. It is going to be a challenge to work out how we can charge for services that are being used – and needed – by people who can’t afford to pay for them,’ says Waldron.

Some law centres have developed partnering schemes with other related services in an attempt to provide better quality-related care and advice as early as possible, so that clients’ problems do not escalate. Nottingham Law Centre is piloting a scheme with a group of GP surgeries to provide legal advice – for example, on housing benefit issues – for patients who are presenting symptoms of depression, which is on the rise.

Senior solicitor Sally Denton says: ‘We have been piloting the scheme for about nine months and it is trying to tackle the underlying problem of people being treated for depression and other mental health issues. Very often, depression is caused or exacerbated by financial problems, so it makes sense that we try to reach these people as early as possible to give them the help they need to get back on track.’ But Denton maintains that the prognosis for the law centre is ‘bleak’. It is proving difficult to arrange new funding, and although the local authority is still providing money, funders are telling advice agencies to work together to conduct joint bids to ‘realise savings’.

‘We are set to lose two full-time members of staff who do the housing benefit work because we have lost so much funding,’ she adds. If law centre funding remains so uncertain in a couple of years’ time when existing grants are due to expire, it is going to be ‘extremely difficult’ to find younger lawyers to take on such work ‘when you are continually scrabbling around to find money to pay yourself’.

To charge or not to charge

Law centres and other not-for-profit agencies employing solicitors can now charge clients.

The move coincides with the implementation of LASPO. Previously, law centres and other organisations applied to the SRA for waivers to be able to charge, or set up community interest companies (CICs), as in Rochdale. Islington Law Centre applied to the SRA for an alternative business structure licence for its CIC in November last year.

But the Legal Action Group, a legal charity that campaigns for better access to justice, has said that the market for charging clients is ‘limited’, whether law centres charge clients directly or through a CIC, particularly for housing, welfare, or family cases, simply because the bulk of clients are on very low incomes and cannot afford to pay.

Rochdale Legal Enterprise, set up in 2012, is a community interest company which works closely with Rochdale Law Centre. It was set up to provide low-cost professional legal services to individuals at affordable rates for those on low and middle incomes across the region. After staff and running costs, any excess income generated from charging is given to Rochdale Law Centre to help with its charity work.

RLE offers advice and representation in immigration and employment matters. The employment law service features a free 30-minute interview, or a low-cost interview up to one hour at £50, with assistance over one hour (up to three hours) at a total cost of £100. This compares to typical rates in private practice of £200 to £250 per hour. The service also offers ‘no win no fee’ representation, taking a 25% charge on any compensation payout (compared to a law firm average of 35%). It also offers a free fast-track service for individuals seeking assistance with compromise agreements, where the employer agrees to pay for assistance.

However, the depth of advice may not be of the same quality as was previously given free of charge. Its website states that no one should be under any illusion that, while RLE will provide limited free assistance with employment matters, its ability to do so is limited – and there will be many people it will not be able to help. People seeking immigration advice will not now have recourse to free specialist advice.

Turning people away

Sue James, solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre, says that the cuts in legal aid are ‘failing law centres and their clients’. Last year, the centre had legal aid funding for 300 housing cases: this year it is 101. ‘We no longer have any employment law contracts. We also used to do a lot more housing work and before the reforms came we were able to deal with cross-housing issues in one go,’ says James. ‘But now a lot of these related areas are no longer in scope, which means that we can deal with some housing issues – possession and homelessness cases, and instances of serious disrepair – but not all of them, which leaves clients trying to find help from other agencies or support networks.’

Pro bono to the rescue?

While law centres may be cutting back on the range of services and depth of advice that they can provide due to financial pressures, it should not be assumed that pro bono firms will step in to fill the gap.

Law firms admit that there is little appetite to move into a market that offers little financial reward, or get involved in areas such as immigration and welfare and benefits cases that they regard as too complex, too specialist, and too time-consuming.

Caroline Sergeant, a solicitor at Paul Rooney Legal in Liverpool, says that ‘we are receiving more enquiries from people looking for assistance in relation to welfare benefits, housing problems and debt issues because their local citizens advice bureau or law centre has closed or has limited resources. We are unable to offer them the assistance they sometimes urgently need as we don’t have the relevant expertise’.

She adds: ‘We are struggling to point them in the right direction to obtain appropriate help because of the closures of law centres. A local CAB, with which this firm had close ties, was closed down because of legal aid changes and reduced funding and all the staff were made redundant.’

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of LawWorks, the UK’s leading pro bono charity which partners with law centres and citizens advice bureaux to use their premises to provide the public with legal support, says that ‘pro bono is not a means to replace law centres, and it is not there to fill the void left by law centres being closed’.

However, Hilsenrath adds that LawWorks is working on a project funded by Unbound Philanthropy, a private grant-making foundation dedicated to migrant and refugee rights, that is looking at whether there could be a workable pro bono model for immigration advice.

Hammersmith & Fulham has secured funding from various charitable trusts, including Lloyds TSB, Trust for London, and J Paul Getty Jnr, as well as applying for duty work at Brentford County Court that pays per case. It has also set up a law centre in nearby Ealing through grant funding. But Hammersmith & Fulham no longer receives any local authority funding: the £250,000 it received from the local council has been completely phased out over the past four years, prompting the centre to move to smaller premises to reduce its running costs.

Nathaniel Mathews, senior solicitor at Hackney Community Law Centre, says that the cuts in legal aid and the impact they have on law centres is a ‘disgrace and a blight on our justice system’, adding that the lack of financial support for advice services ‘hits the most vulnerable and poor at the time that they need these services more than ever’.

Mathews believes that the future for law centres is ‘worrying’. Hackney has had its funding frozen for five years, and was forced to let three staff go in December in preparation for the cuts in legal aid. It is using law students to help with the workload. Furthermore, the centre is still waiting for some of its immigration casework to be settled from years ago. ‘I think that we are getting about 20% more people coming through the doors asking for our help, but we are having to turn them away. We are no longer in a position to help them,’ he says.

By contrast, Patrick Marples, chief executive at South West London Law Centres, which last October closed its Tooting office after 15 years to cut costs and opened a new pro-bono clinic at its Croydon branch, says that the future may not be quite so bleak. ‘Law centres have always managed to be quite resilient,’ he reflects. ‘They will probably go through a period of contraction where the types of service and depth of advice will be pared back. While law centres have been free at the point of delivery, other business models will need to be considered in the future, and this includes charging for some services on a contingency fee or hourly basis,’ he concludes.

Neil Hodge is a freelance journalist

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