The government has promised £5.4 million to support the legal advice sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Ministry of Justice, the money will be distributed to those ‘most in need through not for profit organisations and Law Centres across England and Wales’. This includes £3.1m in funding to organisations that support unrepresented defendants in the courts (more here). The fund is to support specialist advisors providing social welfare law advice including housing, debt, employment, discrimination and special educational needs.
‘Law centres and charities in the advice sector play a vital role in helping people access justice and resolve their legal problems,’ commented the Justice Minister, Alex Chalk. ‘That is why they should be supported to continue to operate safely and effectively during the Covid-19 pandemic. This additional £5.4 million support fund will help do just that – giving providers the support they need to boost remote capability and help as many people as possible during these challenging times.’
The so called Community Justice Fund will be administered by the Access to Justice Foundation and the Law Centres Network will oversee funding earmarked for law centres. Ruth Daniel, chief executive with the Access to Justice Foundation explained that the Community Justice Fund would work ‘in partnership with the sector to support organisations with their response to the current challenges they are facing and aims to help the sector to emerge from it stronger and more resilient than it was before the crisis’.
‘The pandemic’s uneven impact is a grim reminder of the deep inequality in our society that affects every aspect of life,’ said the Law Centres Network chair, Helen Rogers. ‘This support recognises the key role of legal assistance in reducing inequality and bringing justice for all.’
Law Centres Network (LCN) explained that the funding ‘replaces legal aid income lost due to Coronavirus-related restrictions, such as the closure of half the courts in the country and the suspension of housing possession proceedings, where legal aid lawyers defend tenants from eviction and homelessness’.
At the start of April, the chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, announced a £750 million support package for the UK voluntary sector saying that charities played ‘ a crucial role in the national fight against coronavirus, supporting those who are most in need.
According to LCN, Law Centres have kept their doors open throughout the crisis. ‘However, as small charities, the loss of income due to the pandemic was threatening their work and existence, on the eve of the movement’s 50th anniversary,’ the group said.
‘The first Law Centre opened 50 years ago in a converted butcher’s shop in deprived North Kensington – not far from the foot of Grenfell Tower, where it still operates today,’ commented Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network. ‘Since then, Law Centres have sought to bring legal assistance into the community, accessible to the most disadvantaged, making it truly justice for all.’
You can read about the founding of North Kensington Law Centre in 1970 on the Justice Gap here.