Last year three Law Centres were forced to close due to the cuts in legal aid and other reductions in funding. Two months into the current year a handful more Law Centres have either closed or, are in the process of doing so. Other Law Centres are struggling to keep going.
Barnet Law Service in North London, is one of the centres which is closing down. David Rommer, the supervising solicitor at the centre, told LAG that they were being forced to close as a “direct consequence” of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act which was introduced last year by the government. He explained, “I am giving clients bad news all day every day now, as we have no-where else to send them to.” The cuts to legal aid brought in by the LASPO Act for employment, immigration, housing, benefits and debt cases, “knocked out our main source of income,” says Rommer. Our clients are understandably upset as they know that “no-one else now is offering a free service to vulnerable people.” The Law Centre employed six caseworkers including three solicitors all of them are facing redundancy.
Two Law Centres in Manchester announced that they were closing last month. Wythenshawe and Trafford Law Centres are no-longer taking on clients, as is Cross Street, formerly Thamesmead Community Law Centre, in Kent. In addition to these three Law Centres and the service in Barnet, LAG understands that Greenwich Law Centre in London is also close to shutting for good, due to the loss of legal aid income.
The five organisations are all members of the Law Centres Network (LCN), the national organisations which represents these charitable legal centres. Julie Bishop, director of the LCN acknowledges that most of the recent Law Centre closures have been mainly caused by the legal aid cuts. She emphasises that the majority of the just under fifty remaining Law Centres "are OK, some stronger than ever".
Bob Nightingale is the director of the London Legal Support Trust (LLST), a charity which supports Law Centres and other legal advice services in London. He told LAG that the Trust is “coming under increasing pressure due to the demand caused by the cuts to legal aid” and “is supporting a number of Law Centres with grants and loans so that they can keep going.” Without the help of LIST Nightingale feels more Law Centres in London would be facing closure.
Past experience shows that usually once a legal centre closes the service is lost for good. The one good news story for Law Centres in recent months has been the re-establishment of a Law Centre in Birmingham after the original centre closed. The new service is managed by the neighbouring Coventry Law Centre. David Rommer though, is pessimistic about the chances of any Law Centre type service re-emerging in Barnet. He fears that while many parts of the area which the Law Centre serves are wealthy, scratch below the surface and there are plenty of people who are desperately in need of help, such as the domestic servants he specialises in assisting with their employment problems.
LAG believes that once a Law Centre like Barnet goes, many vulnerable people are cut adrift without access to legal help. Their local community also loses legal expertise which cannot readily be replaced. The closure of these Law Centres represents a tragic loss of access to justice and is something which should not be ignored by the government.