Law centre chiefs have highlighted the challenges of providing access to justice while staying afloat following the closure of one of their own - but have stressed their fight to survive is far from over.
Lambeth Law Centre in south London closed its doors last week, citing legal aid cuts and increased operating costs. The news was confirmed hours after the Law Centres Network announced that it had been awarded a £494,000 lottery grant to improve digital capabilities.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy at the Law Centres Network, said many law centres benefit from grants from charitable funders, ‘but the scale of that was never going to be able to replace lost public funding’. The government's civil legal aid contract has become a 'loss leader' and grant funding comes in cycles of up to three yeras, 'so as soon as you get a grant you need to start looking for its replacement'.
Law centres have adapted to cuts by concentrating their resources on service provision, Ben-Cnaan said, 'but this came at the expense of the ability to pursue new funding opportunities, hence the growing role for the Law Centres Network in supporting this'.
Lambeth is the 16th centre to close since 2013, when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force; 11 closed soon after the cuts came into effect. However, Ben-Cnaan said: ‘It’s worth bearing in mind that, over nearly 50 years, the number of law centres has gone up as well as down, and the last six years are no exception. Along with losing 16 law centres, we have gained six new ones, and there are several other groups interested in joining, too.’
Newer members include Suffolk Law Centre, which opened its doors in 2018. Director Audrey Ludwig said: ‘It is one thing to launch a new law centre. It is hard work but exhilarating. But keeping it going, whether just surviving or even thriving, is monumentally much more difficult. With no reserves and limited cashflow, it is constantly and grindingly hard. We went from celebrating the opening to issuing our first “risk of redundancy” notice in the space of one year.’
Suffolk has secured up to three years' funding for its projects. Ludwig said: 'We work so hard proving our worth and innovating and incubating, and fundraising for new legal projects and methods of delivery; alongside the tried, tested and heavily oversubscribed face-to-face legal advice which still seems to serve our vulnerable client group best.
'To continue to do this year in, year out, we and all law centres and advice charities will need more than kind words and pats on the back. We need long-term financial support at realistic levels from politicians and for the public to be lobbying for it.'
Ben-Cnaan said the network is doing its best to ‘sustain and strengthen’ law centres, ‘and we expect the Ministry of Justice to make an earnest effort to do the same’.