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John Vander Luit

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Suffolk one step closer to law centre launch

Suffolk one step closer to law centre launch


New advice centre will make the public more aware of their rights, says director

Suffolk is one step closer to launching its own law centre to help tackle local unmet legal need after the Legal Education Foundation (LEF) approved a seed grant of £32,000 '“ at least another £40,000 is still required.

With the help of local solicitors, Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) currently operates a legal advice clinic once a week that offers half-hour pro bono sessions on different areas of law.

The clinic now hopes to become Suffolk Law Centre later this year, a charitable incorporated organisation wholly owned by ISCRE with the capacity to employ its own solicitors, offer legal advice more often, take on cases and litigate, while still operating out of the same premises.

The LEF has already approved a grant of £32,000 to help pay any regulatory changes and improve internal systems to oversee the transition.

However, at least £40,000 is still required for the centre to attract new staff and ensure long-term sustainability ahead of joining Law Centres Network in November and bidding for the next round of legal aid contracts.

Speaking to Solicitors Journal, Audrey Ludwig, director of ISCRE's legal services, said: 'We already have limited funding to run some basic legal advice clinics and are helped in doing so by a number of legal volunteers.

'But what these clinics can achieve, without formal access to practising solicitors who can bring proceedings or access legal aid to fund proceedings, is limited. Creating a law centre will enable it to pursue cases from early intervention and advice right through to proceedings, even up to the appeals courts.

'In addition, the formal law centre structure will be better placed to employ practising solicitors and to tender for a legal aid contract from 1 April 2018 (when the new contracts begin). The centre will benefit from the backup of a national network of other law centres.

'Being a law centre will also give its correspondence more weight when being considered by opponent lawyers and legal teams.'

Ludwig said the lack of legal advice provision and awareness in the local community was also a driving factor for creating a new law centre.

'Part of the issue is that ordinary people in Suffolk don't know what they're missing until it reaches crisis point,' she said. 'The new law centre will aim to make people more aware of their rights so they enforce them.'

Moreover, Ludwig was influenced by her involvement with the Flourish project, which addresses poverty in rural areas of Suffolk and the hidden needs of the local community. Ludwig currently leads on the project's access to justice and legal advice strand.

To find the £40,000 in additional funding, Ludwig hopes to launch a fundraising campaign in the coming weeks and is in talks with a communications specialist to raise awareness among the local community, including law firms.

'We're in the early stages of talking to the 74 solicitors who volunteer with ISCRE about potentially receiving funding from local firms and the Suffolk and North Essex Law Society.'

To secure the initial £32,000 from the LEF, Ludwig was helped by Matthew Howgate, a non-practising solicitor and consultant at DG Legal, who was funded by the foundation to identify whether the change was possible.

'After meeting with Audrey I concluded that the project was not only feasible but essential. It's no mystery that the Legal Aid Agency has struggled for years to find enough providers in East Anglia,' explained Howgate. 'It's a recognised advice desert so there's very obviously a need there.

'We secured the seed funding from the LEF which gets us on the way but nowhere close to where we need to be to make our dream a reality. The challenge now over the next six to eight months is to get the centre up and running and get the support we need and hopefully the secure the one of two legal aid contracts beginning next year.'

The LEF's chief executive, Matthew Smerdon, told Solicitors Journal: 'The foundation recognised how difficult it is for people in Suffolk to get access to specialist social welfare legal advice. We see the new centre playing a vital role in helping people in Suffolk to use the law to bring about positive changes in their lives.

'As a foundation, we have been supporting advice agencies across the country to develop the role of the law as a tool to solve problems and the board had confidence in the work proposed here in Suffolk would be an important and effective addition to that. We are going to keep in close touch and do all that we can to ensure Audrey's work is a success.'

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal | @lex_progress