Want some advice, kid? Go to Essex

A financial crisis has put the Children's Legal Centre at risk, and forced it to move out of London. Barbara Lantin reports

The Children's Legal Centre has been having a rough time. The centre has shut its London office and moved to Essex University amid allegations that members of the management committee have acted secretively and in panic. The four staff have been made redundant and two members of the management committee have resigned. And a large slice of grant funding has been withdrawn because of these changes.

TheCLC, set up in 1981, runs an advice line for children, parents and professionals, publishes a monthly bulletin of law and policy affecting children and young people and has lobbied on their behalf. It had been in financial difficulties for some time due partly to a drop in subscription renewals for its magazine Childright and a decline in publication sales. A recent report by the consultancy arm of the Charities Aid Foundation for the Department of Health, which helps to fund the centre, said it had been "living beyond its means".

The CAF report also found "hostility, lack of trust, misunderstanding and misinterpretation and lack of communication between the staff and the committee with "neither party apparently able to collaborate effectively with the other to secure a resolution of the ... problems". The report's authors proposed a rescue that included the urgent appointment of an interim chief executive who could call in financial marketing and fund- raising expertise.

However, at the end of April, a month after the report was presented, staff were told protective redundancy notices were being enforced, and that the centre would move to Essex University, where the committee's chair, Carolyn Hamilton, is a senior lecturer in the law department. If the centre was still in existence after a month, they would be offered part-time work at Essex.

The CLC's former co-ordinator, Nicola Wyld, is saddened by the suddenness of the move. "I know the financial position was bad but I think the decision to move to Essex was a panic reaction. From the end of March we had employed a fund-raising and marketing consultant whose brief was emergency income generation. It was my understanding that we were aiming to keep going in the hope that by June something would have come through from the appeal."

Ms Hamilton says relocating the centre at her university was the only alternative to complete closure. "As a charitable trust you have to be sure that you are not trading when insolvent and we were worried we would become insolvent. We did not have a choice."

She added that Childright was back in publication and the advice line was running in the afternoons with qualified staff, with a morning session planned in September. The committee is handing over production and distribution to a commercial publisher while retaining editorial control.

Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which has funded the centre since its inception, had agreed to bring forward the third year of its grant payment in order to help to ease the financial crisis. However, after the staff redundancies, the trust withdrew its funding.

The Department of Health has continued its funding. But some have reservations about how effective the CLC will now be. Hereward Harrison, director of counselling for Childline UK, said it could be difficult for the centre to continue its lobbying work so far from Westminster. "Also, the staff were specialists. And the centre was the only place children could refer themselves for legal advice. It's been a marvellous service. One just hopes that will continue."

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