Law students tackle 'advice black hole' in West Midlands
More than 500 local residents helped with employment disputes
Backed by Coventry University and global firm Allen & Overy, law students in the West Midlands are tackling the 'advice black hole' left by government cuts to legal aid.
As well as providing invaluable experience for budding solicitors, the partnership between Coventry University and the Central England Law Centre has helped fill the gap left when legal aid for employment law was cut in 2014.
The scheme '“ run as the Coventry Law Centre Legal Clinic '“ has trebled the number of clients the charity can advise since the partnership began four years ago. More than 500 local residents who are no longer eligible for legal aid have been assisted with claims for unfair dismissal, discrimination, and non-payment of wages.
The charity, which spans the West Midlands, offers free advice on employment matters '“ specifically aimed at those who would have qualified for government-funded legal aid before the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Overseen by Law Centre solicitor Katherine King, 12 selected law school students, working in pairs, see clients during the weekly law clinic.
'When legal aid for employment law was cut and court fees were introduced it had a drastic impact. Cases pursued in the employment tribunal dropped by around 75 per cent and many people can no longer gain access to justice,' said King.
'Most of the people who come to us would have been eligible for legal aid and this is another way for us to support so many of those being treated unfairly by employers.'
The centre has also teamed up with Allen & Overy to provide students with access to workplace legal training and the chance to talk cases through with specialist solicitors.
'We wanted to work with a law centre based outside London to help address advice black holes in the UK. Our lawyers have really enjoyed the partnership and getting the chance to look at employment law issues from the employee's perspective,' said Joanna Page, a litigation partner at the Magic Circle firm.
'While pro bono advice cannot be a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system, we are pleased that this partnership is allowing the law centre to significantly increase the numbers of clients assisted and to provide valuable training to Coventry University's students.'
Alan East, senior lecturer in law at the university, said: 'The benefits of this clinic for our students are enormous. To have the chance to work with a global law firm providing pro bono legal advice is so rare. Students go through a rigorous process to gain this opportunity and they really give it everything. Instead of just offering advice they can now take a whole case which is a great learning tool.'
Legal aid cuts have increased the pressure placed on local advice centres in recent years. Eleven law centres have been forced to close since 2013, following 40 per cent cuts on average to their income. Of the 45 law centres now active in the UK, only three have launched since LASPO came into effect.
In December, Solicitors Journal revealed how a community initiative by three law centres in the South West is aiming to generate enough revenue from fee-paying clients to fund a solicitor position in each of its sites.
Avon and Bristol Law Centre, Wiltshire Law Centre, and Gloucestershire Law Centre secured funding from the Legal Education Foundation and the Future Advice Fund to launch a for-profit legal social enterprise.
Meanwhile, in the North West, the Greater Manchester Law Centre is set to officially open on 11 February, having moved into premises in Moss Side previously occupied by Citizens Advice.
The ten districts of Greater Manchester used to be home to nine law centres. However, the closure of South Manchester Law Centre in 2014, after four years of fighting cuts and contract reorganisations, left just two centres in Bury and Rochdale; the inner city effectively became a 'law centre free zone'.
The new centre has hired legal aid lawyer Ngaryan Li as a full-time supervising solicitor and set up its first welfare rights services, challenging employment support allowance decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions.
John Nicholson, chair of the GMLC, said: 'We are not just a law centre, but a campaign for law centres generally. We aren't providing a bit of service delivery, though that is important, on the lines of food banks '“ we are a campaign for properly funded legal aid.
'We are fighting for a new generation of publicly funded social welfare lawyers '“ while it is great to get so much support from pro bono volunteers, we are not just here to mask the severity of cuts and closures.
'We are not an isolated organisation, competing with others for the crumbs of statutory sector funding; we want to campaign with others for more for all of us. And we do not just want access to the legal system, we are a campaign for justice.'
John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal