Most law centres have seen their budgets reduced by thousands of pounds in the last two years, leaving increasing numbers of people without access to the legal system, a survey by the Independent has found.
With the threat of more cuts next April, financial problems will be high on the agenda when the Law Centres Federation meets next weekend. The survey is certain to heighten concern about the future of the movement, which has already witnessed the closure of five law centres in recent years.
The Independent received replies to a detailed questionnaire from 33 law centres, representing well over half the movement. Of these, 17 have had their budgets cut since 1990, typically by about pounds 20,000. A further nine have suffered cuts in real terms, with their budgets frozen or increasing below the rate of inflation. Just seven centres have been able to keep their income ahead of inflation. They have often achieved this by undertaking legal aid work. But this brings new difficulties. In the past, law centres have been praised for helping clients who have no right to legal aid, and therefore no other way of pursuing their claims. If the centres boost their income through the legal aid fund, they have to ignore these clients.
Money was not the only issue giving grounds for concern, however. Two law centres, Brent, north London, and Stockton and Hartlepool, Cleveland, have been told that their local authorities want them to merge with other agencies, including the Citizens' Advice Bureau. In five other areas, councils are at an early stage of considering similar schemes.
Workers in the centres believe local authorities are tempted by the merger proposals to save money and prevent law centres from taking up cases against council officers - a constant issue in fields such as housing.
Kate Markus, chairwoman of the Law Centres Federation, says local authorities often resent funding law centres only to see them take up cases on behalf of aggrieved groups, such as tenants. 'It seems that in some instances the attacks, whether through cuts or mergers, are motivated not only by financial difficulties but also by a desire to avoid their actions being challenged,' she said.
The federation says if law centres are to be given security, central government must take over funding. The Legal Aid Board wants to provide up to 50 per cent of law centres' budgets, with local authorities supplying the rest.
But so far the Lord Chancellor's Department has failed to reply to the board's request for extra money. Ms Markus is angry at the lack of response. 'It is not enough for the Government to say they are looking into things and there is nothing they can do because they don't have a plan.'
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