Reborn Manchester law centre more than a 'legal advice food bank'
Justice for all campaign group vows to continue fight against legal aid cuts
Manchester is to have a law centre again after a succession of closures in the past decade ended with the last one shutting down in 2014.
Greater Manchester Law Centre has moved into premises in Moss Side previously occupied by Citizens Advice and will officially launch on 11 February.
The setting up of the centre marks a touchpoint in a journey that started a year ago as a local campaign against the legal aid cuts. The appointment earlier this month of legal aid lawyer Ngaryan Li as a full-time supervising solicitor has allowed it to become a fully-fledged law centre member of the Law Centres Network.
The GMLC currently provides advice mainly in relation to welfare but Li, formerly of Stephensons, said the plan was to extend to other areas of law. ‘We’re looking to become a fully-functional law centre providing welfare and benefits advice and representation, and in due course extend our services to housing and debt advice, as well as employment, prison law, and family.’
Li was instrumental in getting her old firm involved in the project, securing the placement of trainees at the centre. And like other law centres, GMLC will continue to rely on the support of local firms sending in junior lawyers, she told Solicitors Journal.
Li’s post was funded by grants from human rights charity the AB Charitable Trust and the Legal Education Foundation. A further grant from communities charity the Tudor Trust will fund an 18-month development manager position.
‘Our ability to attract this sort of funding has depended on demonstrating our clear intent to sustaining ourselves for the future,’ says chair John Nicholson, a barrister at Kenworthys Chambers. ‘All this means we aim for sustainability based on our own resources. By using pro bono barristers and solicitors, using students and volunteers, we intend to support the advice we give without needing to rely on the restrictive nature of declining government and council contracts.’
But Nicholson says the group will retain its campaigning purpose. ‘We don’t just want to be a law centre, but a campaign for law centres generally. Nor do we want only to provide a bit of service delivery, important though that is, on the lines of food banks – we are a campaign for properly funded legal aid.
‘We want a new generation of publicly funded social welfare lawyers, not just pro bono volunteers, especially not if this is masking the severity of cuts and closures – we are a campaign for access to justice for all,’ he continued. ‘We do not want to be an isolated organisation, competing with others for the crumbs of statutory sector funding, we want to work with others to campaign for more for all of us.’
Greater Manchester once had nine law centres. The last one, South Manchester Law Centre, which had been set up in 1975, closed down in 2014. This has left only two on the outreaches of the county: Bury and Rochdale.
The only other free legal advice organisation locally is the University of Manchester’s Legal Advice Centre, with whom the new law centre will be working to deliver advice and representation for people appealing employment and support allowance decisions.
Manchester’s five universities and law colleges joined the centre’s legal academic services board, and patrons include Michael Mansfield, John Hendy, and Lord Bach. Bolton-born Maxine Peake, star of BBC courtroom drama Silk, and I Daniel Blake director Ken Loach are among supporters.
Retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Henry Brooke also gave the project his backing. ‘It would be marvellous if you can establish a community law centre in Moss Side. It is badly needed,’ he said at the time of the original campaign.
Of the 45 law centres around the UK, Greater Manchester’s is the third to have launched since LASPO came into effect. The other two are Ealing and Merseyside. The former was able to launch because it had secured a legal aid contract; the latter was a merger between two local charities.
‘LASPO has made it more difficult for law centres because the area where they tend to specialise – social welfare law – is mostly out of scope,’ said Law Centres Network’s head of policy and profile, Nimrod Ben-Cnaan.
Ben-Cnaan said legal advice organisations often collaborated at local level but that the reduction in the number of agencies on the ground made this more difficult. ‘The ecology of advice is collapsing, with remaining organisations having to adjust to closures, cuts, and discontinuation of service.’
LASPO restrictions, in particular, have hit law centres badly. Most had legal aid contracts but dwindling public funding has prompted many to experiment with alternative revenue sources. The most recent is Cabot Law, a community interest company set up by three South West-based law centres to provide paid-for immigration law advice. Earlier examples include Leicester-based Castle Park Solicitors, a charity-owned law firm, and a clutch of law centres such as Islington and Rochdale.
‘It’s still too early to say whether this is a sustainable alternative,’ Ben-Cnaan said. ‘It involves building networks and referrals, and that takes time.’
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief at Solicitors Journal