Legal Opinion: Financial crisis pushes law centres to the brink

Lawyers working in law centres are often the last hope for people in desperate situations. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, reports on hard times from the legal coal-face
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The Independent Online

The public image of the law tends to be monopolised by glamorous lawyers representing the rich and famous in "winner takes all" court battles. This week's voluminous coverage of the McCartney divorce is a case in point.

But there is another, although much less media-friendly, area of the law which each year provides thousands of Britain's most vulnerable citizens with a vital lifeline in times of personal crisis.

Law centres have been a part of the fabric of our welfare state since their inception in the early 1970s. Typically, they are run by a small and dedicated band of professionals and volunteers who use the law to hold the powerful to account and to protect people's rights from abuse. These lawyers and advisers work long hours, for little or no financial reward.

Today there are around 65 centres dotted all over England and Wales, offering advice on housing, immigration, mental health, disability and many other social welfare issues.

But law centres are now facing their own crisis, with five London agencies reported to be on the brink of closure, including the oldest, North Kensington. According to the Legal Action Group (LAG), changes to legal aid funding which came into force in October are starting to take their toll.

"We have been warning the Legal Services Commission for over a year that the introduction of the legal aid reforms including fixed fees could prove a fatal shock to the fragile economies of the not-for-profit sector," says Steve Hynes, LAG director. "Less than six months into the new regime and the sector is in crisis. Are we going to have to wait for the collapse of a leading London law centre before the Government finally sits up and takes notice? It's already happening – since October Stockport has closed and last week the receivers came to Gateshead."

One of those threatened with closure is the South West London Law Centres. "The work we do is not glamorous, but it is vital," Michael Ashe, its chief executive, says. "There are desperate people queuing outside our doors for hours each night in the depths of winter to see volunteer advisers because their low-wage jobs mean they are not eligible for legal aid. We cannot even invite them to wait inside out of the cold because we cannot afford proper premises and we cannot afford to pay a receptionist."

The Government and the Legal Services Commission have tried to reassure law centres that the changes to public law funding are vital to ensure the future of law centres. Without reform, a senior representative from the Legal Services Commission told the Law Centres Federation Conference last year, the alternative might have been no funding at all.

But that is little comfort to those working in law centres which are already on the brink of collapse.

"We stay at work in the evenings and come in at weekends because we cannot balance the books any other way," says Michael Ashe, "and because there is always another vulnerable person denied their rights who we cannot let down. Like doctors, nurses and teachers, we just want to be allowed to do our job, and do it well."