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The Future for UK Community Law Centres

 

UK Law Centres Federation Annual Conference

Birmingham Radisson SAS, Friday 21 November 2008

 

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On behalf of Govan Law Centre I would like to thank the Law Centres Federation for inviting me to address your annual conference.   It's a great honour and pivilege.

I have been following - with growing concern - the funding crisis for law centres in England and Wales.   

I'm aware you've had to cope with reduced income from the introduction of fixed fees in late 2007 - which clearly are unable to do justice to the many complex social welfare law cases law centres undertake.  

Worse still is the Legal Services Commission's tendering plans and it's Community Legal Advice Network.  I find it incredible that a process which is supposed to 'help' local communities has directly led to the loss of community resources - with many law centre and CABx closures this year - and this 'help' is threatening the future of many more law centres across England and Wales.

Before I talk about the challenges facing law centres in Scotland, I would like to say something about the best value tendering process and the Community Legal Advice Network.  

These issues are relevant to Scotland as Glasgow City Council is introducing tendering for all legal and money advice services from next year.

Firstly, the strength in the law centre model is the genuine partnership between solicitors and the local community.  My management committee reflects a wide range of life experiences from our local community: a hospital cleaner, factory worker, local health professional, retired ex-service man and a volunteer with a local youth project among others.

If community solicitors are the heart of a law centre, community management committees are their soul. 

When I look at, for example, the 'Leicester Community Legal Advice Centre' - operated by A4E and Howell's Solicitors - I see a big international private company, and a big private firm of lawyers. 

The only 'community' in this arrangement is in the Centre's title.   

This gross misuse of language is the equivalent of saying the multinational company MacDonalds provides 'a Community Burger Service'.

Community services should empower the local community; and they should also be controlled by members of that community.   The law centre model does this.

What do we mean by empowering local people?  

We mean a community legal service that can respond to local need.  For example, when the local council wanted to rezone local residential land in Glasgow for business use Govan Law Centre was able to represent the local community at a planning inquiry.  Planning inquiries won't be on any tendering contract but a community controlled law centre can ask its lawyers to intervene at various levels as and when appropriate.

Likewise, when my community management committee expressed concern over the shocking exploitation of Roma migrant workers in Glasgow's Govanhill by slum private landlords and gangmaster agencies, we invested our own time and money to provide a free outreach legal service.   

The social work department were giving out food parcels such was the level of poverty with 28 people living in a 2 bedroom flat, feeding babies on sugared water and being financially ripped off.

We worked hard to identify mixed funding sources and this week Scotland's top law officer, the Lord Advocate, launched Govanhill Law Centre - the first new Scottish law centre in a decade.  And the only law centre in the world to receive funding by the international aid agency, Oxfam. 

Again, much of the work of Govanhill Law Centre will never appear on any standard tender document, but we asked the community and they told us they desparately needed this new legal service.

Private businesses exist to maximise profit.  There is nothing wrong with that but law centres are unique in the legal profession by reinvesting all income generated back into their service.

Community law centres are innovative.  Again you won't find 'innovation' on any standard tender specification. Setting up creative new projects or campaigns to tackle discrimination and inequality are surplus to requirements in the contracting world - although vital to those vulnerable members of our communities who're mistreated or abused.

When Govan Law Centre campaigned in Scotland for additional legal rights for homeowners against repossession, for the introduction of healthy free school meals or assisted with the UK unfair bank charges campaign no-one paid us for this work.  But UK law centres have always had a strong campaigning and policy role. 

We're not afraid to speak up and upset those in power - or challenge those who fund us - if it will help our community.

The underlying problem with the best value model is that it treats what law centres do as a commodity, a product or service to be bought, sold and consumed by consumers.

Once you regard access to justice and tackling unmet legal need as a commodity or consumer good, the next logical step is tendering and creating opportunities for private companies to out bid us by providing basic services at a bargain basement cost.  

Of course access to justice is not a commodity - it's a constititutional, democractic, human right.  No one chooses to be poor, live in a squalid tenancy or be discriminated against.  The reality is law centres are providing accountable, public services, in their communities. 

The position is regretable given there was no legal requirement to put law centre or CABx services out to tender under best value and I think it was a fundamental political mistake to do so.  

Likewise the rationale of the 'one stop shop' Community Legal Advice Centre is fundamentally flawed.   A one stop shop service can be provided by a number of agencies, and does not have to be provided in one geographical location.  If anything one location in a city centre is hardly in the 'community' and isn't socially inclusive.

Accordingly, I would hope there is still good scope for the Law Centres Federation and other advice sector agencies to lobby the Government and local authorities to think again on these regressive plans.

It feels particulary strange for me to be making these arguments when I know local human rights activists are literally crying out for law centres in West Central Africa.  

In September I had the great honour to travel across Cameroon on a legal needs assessment with one of the country's Human Rights Commissioners.  At the end of my visit I was proud to tell the 25th  anniverary AGM of the Cameroonian Chevening Fellows I had travelled to 6 of their country's 10 provinces in 10 days - only for everyone to laugh and wonder if I was crazy to have travelled so much.  

But the more I travelled and the more people I met, the more I was utterly convinced the problem in Cameroon - and same can be said for many countries including our own - was not the law itself but the lack of take up and implementation of legal rights.

The problems in Cameroon were acute and attempts to address unmet legal needs through the private legal sector had failed.   I met many community activists in Bamenda in the country's North West Province and it became clear the reason why Africa's first community pilot law centre could work brilliantly there was because of the strength of the local management committee in waiting.

When I told people in Cameroon about the inclusive structure of law centres and how its solicitors would work for the community and undertake policy and campaign work too, everyone from the Deputy Foreign Minister, the Governor, human rights workers and local activists embraced the law centre model with genuine excitement and passion.

They wanted their Bamenda community law centre, not some generic service provided by the private sector according to the diktat of some government official.

I am sure my colleagues in Cameroon would find it bewildering to discover that successful community law centres in England were being closed.

Of course in Scotland it has never been easy living for law centres.  Like you we have had periods of living from hand to mouth.   Funding for as little as 3 and 6 months at a time and like you we have weathered those stressful storms.

Most law centres in Scotland are now funded from a mixture of sources - some council funding, some Scottish Government funding, legal aid income, funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, judicial expenses from our opponents in successful litigations, seminar income and consultancy income from various smaller projects.

There have been two real threats to our financial stability recently.  Firstly, the legal aid board in Scotland began to apply the 'preservation of property' rules in all mortgage repossession cases.  So previously while in cases where clients were on benefits we could get paid under civil legal aid, we have been unable to submit many of these accounts - for fear of turning our clients into debtors. 

Where the client's property has risen even by 1% in value - and in many parts of Scotland believe it or not that is still happening - the legal aid board say our clients living on £60 per week have 'made a notional capital gain' and should pay their own bill. 

For Govan Law Centre this contributed to us to making a £25,000 loss last year.  We have been campaigning on this issue and also looking at taking the legal aid board to judicial review, although we suspect getting legal aid for that case will be hard work.

The second threat is the imposition of tendering in Glasgow.   We were sad to see the fate of Leicester and Gateshead Law Centres and indeed the others who have closed, as well as Hull CAB.  With an eye on the private sector partnerships winning tenders in England we decided in Glasgow to form consortium bids for the tendering process.

Glasgow has split the city into several areas or 'lots' for the tendering process and for Govan Law Centre we have joined in our current funding bid with our local money advice agency and local CABx.  In practice we all work together anyway so it made sense to do formalise this.  From a tendering process it also makes us a very strong bid by combining all of our talents and experience.

Given we are a charity which uses cross-subsidisation to provide a free service at the point of delivery - and often defend court actions without any legal aid at all - we would be amazed if anyone could provide legal services for less money. 

That is not to say a private sector firm or company will not come along and say that they can.   Nor is it to say the tender will want all of the things that we do at the moment.  So we are not complacent and it is a real worry not to know if we will have any council funding for the next three years. 

It's sad to say but this is voluntary sector life in the UK.  I believe law centres are undervalued and in particular when the public think of solicitors they often think of money grabbing professionals.   Although I think we can all safely say the banking industry has taken the lead in that department. 

The public don't automatically think of law centre solicitors working with other professional advisers with a great sense of public duty and social justice.   Working in very tough conditions with modest pay, but doing what they do because they genuinely care, and to paraphrase Roger Smith, 'wanting to use the law to change the world'. 

As Roger said of English law centres in the early 70s: 

How right he was then and now.  

To me that early idealism is still alive and well.  That's why people choose to work in a community law centre and I know that I and my colleagues at Govan Law Centre believe that.

Our ideas and values are worth fighting for.   

Community law centres are worth fighting for and we need to work together, at all levels, to ensure more law centres, not less.

Scottish law centres are happy to work strategically with you, and that is why today I hope Govan Law Centre will be permitted to affiliate to your Federation.

Mike Dailly
Principal Solicitor
Govan Law Centre

Birmingham

 

Note

At the Annual General Meeting of the Law Centres Federation (LCF) on 21 November 2008, it was resolved to grant Govan Law Centre Associate Member status of the LCF.  The LCF supports and promotes community law centres across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  It is a charity and company limited by guarantee, established in 1978.  The first community law centres in the UK were established in London in 1970, taking inspiration from the 1960's US neighbourhood law office model.   Govan Law Centre is the first Scottish law centre in several decades to join the LCF and we believe the time is right to build and improve the strategic links and collaborative work between community law centres across the UK and internationally.        

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