In April 2013, the government brought in the Legal Aid, Punishment and Offenders Act – otherwise known as LASPO – which introduced drastic cuts to the legal aid budget. Over a year later and the impact of these cuts is becoming clear. Law centres have had to close across the country and Britain’s most vulnerable have seen their right to fair civil justice drastically impaired. In a series of special investigations for www.thejusticegap.com, journalist Jack Simpson talks to those that have been hardest hit by the cuts and finds out what LASPO has means for civil justice in the UK.
In the second of four articles, Simpson looks at the effect LASPO has had on the agencies that offer advice and representation to those that most need it. You can read the first here. Also read Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi’s How to Build a Law Centre
Over a year ago, Wythenshawe Law Centre sat in Europe’s largest council estate and provided legal advice and representation in housing, immigration and employment law for hundreds of people in Manchester. A lifeline to the city’s residents, it was Manchester’s main provider of publicly-funded legal advice.
In February, a statement was released by the centre announcing that after 29 years Wythenshawe Law Centre would be closing. The reason for the closure, Wythenshawe was ‘no longer able to absorb the LASPO cuts’. Just a month before, Manchester’s Trafford Law Centre had to do the same. Similar reasons were given. In a statement released by those at the Trafford Law Centre they said: ‘It is with great regret that we announce that Trafford Law Centre is closing due to significant cuts in funding.’
Now in a city of over 500,000 and with a poverty level of nearly 40% there are just three places where Manchester’s most in need can seek free legal advice and representation.
Rochdale Law Centre and Bury Law Centre are over nine miles away from the city centre and the other one, South Manchester Law Centre, deals exclusively with asylum and immigration cases. The situation in Manchester is by no means unique.
Law Centres and solicitors’ firms which once relied on legal aid funding have suffered as funding from housing, employment, immigration and family were removed from the scope of legal aid last April.
Across the country, Law Centres – ‘the frontline of non-profit legal help’ – are having to close, while law firms have been forced to abandon their legal aid work.
According to the latest figures from the Law Centres Network, the organization that oversees all of Britain’s not-for-profit law centres, nine of their centres had to be closed down last year directly as a result of their inability to absorb the LASPO cuts. ‘The legal aid cuts are a massive worry for all of our law centres,’ says Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy at the Law Centres Network. ‘The cuts have focused mostly on the areas Law Centres specialize in. For Law Centres legal aid is significant. For many it is their primary source of income. And with cuts to funding from local authorities too, it is getting more and more difficult to survive.’ Pre-LASPO, the Law Centre Network reckoned that approximately 46% of funding came from legal aid and around 40% from local authorities. In one centre (North Kensington) legal aid represented about 73% of funding.
End of an era
Many of Britain’s major cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Leicester have all seen their Law Centres closed within the past 12 months. Other more specialized Centres have also had to cease operations as a result of the cuts. In September last year, Streetwise Law Centre, a Law Centre that gave legal advice to some of London’s most vulnerable young people had to be cut after many of their services went out of legal aid scope and London Councils stopped their funding.
This was followed in February this year with the closure of the Royal Association Deaf People Law Centre in Newport, Wales. The only Law Centre in the country aimed at providing expert legal advice to Britain’s deaf community. It had to cease operations in February after its legal aid contract was removed. Those that have managed to stay open have been able to do so but at a severely reduced level.
Sheffield, Britain’s fourth largest city, once had 12 different providers of free advice and representation for the city’s population of over half a million. Its largest was the Sheffield Law Centre. A lifeline for those who were unable to finance their own legal representation, it dealt with well over 500 cases per year in areas such as employment, housing and immigration.
‘At one point I think we had about 17 people working here, three in each area easily,’ says Anne Hudson who has worked at the centre for 20 years. ‘We had a real specialty in employment law. However, that’s all finished now.’
After the cuts came into effect last year, Sheffield Law Centre had to go through a process of streamlining and restructuring. Their funding shrunk, so did their services and staff members. ‘It has definitely reduced our ability to give advice to the most vulnerable,’ she says.
Its immigration and asylum services were removed and in their employment law advice also had to be restricted. It then had to cut its staff down from 17, to just five. ‘These are people that have spent their whole lives in legal aid and have spent time targeting people that cannot get help in any other way,’ Hudson adds.
With no legal aid contracts and Sheffield City Council’s budget drastically restricted, it was decided that it could only fund one legal advice service. This led to the Sheffield Law Centre, along with the other 11 not-for-profit legal advice providers, having to pool their resources together into one. While the merger has ensured Sheffield Law Centre’s survival as the Sheffield Citizens Advice and Law Centre, the services they are now able to provide have shrunk significantly.
‘This concentrating of resources into smaller organizations has been one of the big changes that has come from legal aid cuts in our sector,’ explains Hodson. ‘It has been happening in cities everywhere.’
The worry for Ben-Cnaan is that while the number of Law Centres continues to drop, the number of law firms has also seen a massive decrease. ‘If there aren’t any alternatives to our law centres, where are these people going to go?’
On their knees
A paper published in April by the Law Society looked into the impact of LASPO and said that the removal of many civil cases from the scope of legal aid had led to a number of private firms either closing or shifting their focus from legal aid to privately funded work. A similar study by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group said that those smaller firms that were providing social welfare law were ‘on their knees’ as a result of LASPO.
Nowell Meller, in Burslem Staffordshire is one of those firms having to rethink as a result of the LASPO cuts. Specialising in family law, they have seen a massive decrease in their number of cases they now see.
On an average month before LASPO came in, Nowell Meller was seeing 41 clients a month for legal help and representing 21 clients in court. They now see, on average, just fewer than two people seeking legal face-to-face legal advice per month and six people seeking representation.
Losing just under a quarter of their income, this has inevitably led to redundancies. Before LASPO was introduced, their staff included 17 lawyers. After two rounds of redundancies it now has just nine lawyers.
‘What we are developing is our own private client offering, to try and reduce our dependency on legal aid,’ says Steve Kirwan the managing director of the firm and former member of the family lawyers group Resolution.
However, Kirwan is keen to do whatever it takes to ensure Nowell Meller are able to continue the important work they carry out.
‘I have been a legal aid lawyer since 1986,’ he says. ‘I am not going to give it up easily. I can’t imagine what damage it would cause, especially in such a deprived area if we suddenly have to start turning people away when they are so in need of help.’