The government is giving law centres and other advice organisations £5.4m to survive the Covid-19 so they can meet growing demand for social welfare advice.
Announcing the cash late yesterday afternoon, justice minister Alex Chalk MP said law centres and charities in the advice sector play a vital role in helping people access justice and resolve their legal problems. ‘That is why they should be supported to continue to operate safely and effectively during the Covid-19 pandemic,’ he said.
The Ministry of Justice says the money will help providers to remain operational during the pandemic and increase capacity to meet rising demand. The money will be administered by the Access to Justice Foundation and Law Centres Network through a Community Justice Fund. The ministry says the cash is in addition to a recently signed grant agreement to provide more than £3.1m towards support for litigants in person.
The Law Centres Network warned last month that several centres had sufficient reserves for only four to eight weeks.
Welcoming the new cash, Helen Rogers, chair of the Law Centres Network, said: ‘The pandemic’s uneven impact is a grim reminder of the deep inequality in our society that affects every aspect of life. This support recognises the key role of legal assistance in reducing inequality and bringing justice for all.’
Law Society president Simon Davis said solicitors, who continue to do pro bono work through law centres, ‘stand ready, willing and able’ to help. He hopes similar investment will be made for legal aid firms ‘which have been operating for years been on the tightest of margins as a result of low fees and are now suffering a significant reduction in income’.
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, said more money to help the most vulnerable enforce their rights is always good news. ‘But it should not be seen as a substitute for the specialised expertise that the legal professions provide to members of the public. Without financial measures to support legal practitioners, particularly self-employed barristers - many of whom are not eligible for the government’s existing support measures - there won’t be a profession with this expertise in a few months,’ she said.
‘Propping up law centres is only a small part of what is necessary to protect the public. If it is not accompanied by practical support for barristers and solicitors, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat, access to justice will sink with them.’