City firms have pledged £85,000 so far towards an emergency fund to save law centres from closure as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
The Law Centres Network is establishing a Justice Fund to help law centres which, director Julie Bishop said, ‘were operating on a knife edge financially’ before the pandemic. Those who have already pledged emergency cash include DLA Piper and Mishcon de Reya.
Without emergency funding, Bishop said many centres will close imminently. She told the Gazette that several centres have sufficient reserves for only four to eight weeks. ‘Normally that’s OK because work in progress comes through. But the issue is when the tap is turned off.’
The network has looked at the measures introduced by the government to support small businesses. But, Bishop said: ‘We’re not in a position to guarantee to repay loans. We cannot fundraise to repay a loan. We need grants.’ Some staff could be furloughed. ‘But remember, law centre staff still need to be available to provide a service to clients, so they will be working. A key requirement of furlough is you do not work.’
Bishop said law centres had already seen a surge in domestic violence and employment matters. 'We anticipate that there will be unscrupulous evictions of tenants at this time. We anticipate debt and immigration problems. We need to be here to be able to support the community during this tough time so that, with an illness such as this, if they survive it physically, lives are not destroyed through a failure to get legal assistance when they need it. This is our very duty as law centres.’
Ealing Law Centre's Mandy Groves said the current crisis has created additional access to justice barriers. 'We're currently not physically in food banks anymore. We're not doing outreach services because they're not happening. It's just trying to make sure no one is falling through those gaps which are even bigger than they have been... and we're going beyond the legal issues even more so than usual. We're getting calls from different people who now find themselves in an insecure position and have been told about the existence of law centres,' she said.
Based on a quick cashflow assessment, the network reckons it needs to raise at least £500,000 to sustain the centres most in need of help. It is appealing to law firms ‘because they will understand the predicament that law centres find themselves in’. The network also hopes the fund will serve as a long-term resource to support cases no longer eligible for legal aid, and hopes to launch it publicly in July to mark the 50th anniversary of the law centres movement.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.