April 18 2024
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Mind the gap: the case for a law centre in Lewisham

Mind the gap: the case for a law centre in Lewisham

Image from Proof issue 3: Why legal aid matters

A new report into legal need in Lewisham has found that a significant majority of issues raised by constituents at MPs’ surgeries are legal problems (63%), and has identified several key features in the borough’s population which indicate an increased need for legal advice.

Against this backdrop of legal need, a leading partnership between Southwark Law Centre (SLC) and Citizens Advice Lewisham (CAL) is seeking to establish a law centre for the borough, at a time when legal advice services face constrained resources and rising need.

The report, authored by City law firm Hogan Lovells, builds on the Mind the Gap research project published by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Pro Bono in 2017 where it was noted that MP’s surgeries have become ‘the A&E of legal services’.

Adopting the same methodology as the APPG report, Hogan Lovells volunteers attended surgeries with Lewisham MPs Heidi Alexander, Ellie Reeves and Vicky Foxcroft, observing 103 constituents’ appointments.

The authors also gathered qualitative information on broader trends from the MPs and caseworkers, and conducted a further statistical analysis of legal indicators in the borough taken from public data. The report was launched at the Citizens Advice Lewisham AGM in November 2018, with a presentation from Hogan Lovells and a panel discussion chaired by Local Councillor Paul Bell.

The study found that asylum and immigration was the most prevalent legal problem for constituents – accounting for 32% of legal issues raised at surgeries. One MP’s caseworker commented in the report that immigration is one of the most pressing areas of legal need in the borough, and that this is an area that has seen changes in policy and environment leading to greater need. He noted more aggressive Home Office tactics, reforms in welfare connected to immigration and the need for representation at tribunals as among the key issues.

Housing problems were found to be a close second behind asylum and immigration, accounting for 28% of constituents’ legal problems. Another caseworker stated that a lack of housing and disrepair are among the major legal issues arising at surgeries, and that this is connected to a squeeze on affordable housing in the area. The lack of readily accessible legal advice can mean that constituents lack information about their housing rights and struggle to challenge decisions that rank them low on the housing register, and to enforce their rights in relation to disrepair.

However, despite the level of need in the borough there is currently no law centre in Lewisham providing free legal advice to residents. Some private practices provide legal aid funded services, but are frequently at capacity and cannot support many forms of legal need. Existing provision is particularly weak in the area of immigration, with only two legal aid contracts in the borough.

Further, while there is a strong third sector presence in Lewisham which provides some legal casework and advice in key areas, demand for these services significantly outstrips supply. There are no third sector agencies with immigration legal aid contracts, and existing capacity to take on key strategic legal projects such as actions for judicial review is extremely limited.

Ellie Reeves MP addresses this issue head-on in the report:

‘There’s not nearly enough access to legal advice in Lewisham. There’s no law centre, there’s nowhere near enough legal aid, so if someone presents as a new case there is little we can do in terms of legal advice. More access to legal advice is desperately needed. For some constituents, coming to the surgery is the first time someone has listened to their issues, and if necessary with an interpreter, so that they can properly articulate their issues.’

Against this background of need, the SLC-CAL partnership is working together to increase access to professional legal advice, casework and representation for Lewisham residents, ultimately through the establishment of a new law centre in Lewisham.

Work on this project has already begun, with a new Lewisham Legal Service for expert legal-aid funded housing advice now up and running at the Leemore Community Centre. The new service focuses on the most vulnerable residents, offering legal advice on a range of issues including possession cases, disrepair, landlord harassment, unlawful evictions, and threats of possession proceedings. It also takes on cases for clients who are without adequate accommodation, including those who do not have access to mainstream housingfor example because of their immigration status.

The partnership is now seeking to extend the Lewisham Legal Service to cover immigration casework, highlighted in the report and by MPs as an area of significant need. The Service will initially focus on enhancing capacity in other agencies in this area, and identifying strategic cases suitable for judicial review, which can be taken to court by Southwark Law Centre as part of an innovative cooperative model designed to use resources as efficiently as possible.

The Lewisham Legal Service currently takes referrals from other agencies and the Advice Line run by CAL from the same premises. Local agencies interested in making a referral to the new housing service should contact aysha.anderson@southwarklawcentre.org.ukand residents seeking advice in the borough can call the Freephone Advice Line on 0800 231 5453, Monday – Friday, 9am-12.30pm and 1.30pm – 5pm. Appointments are booked subject to an assessment and availability.

You can read the Hogan Lovells report here.