There is just one Law Centre in the whole of Wales. Based in Cardiff, Speakeasy Law Centre provides free legal advice and representation on debt, welfare benefits, housing and employment rights. For those in the north, you’re typically much closer to English cities like Liverpool and Manchester than Cardiff – though these may still be well over an hour away. Driving to Cardiff could take between three and four-and-a-half hours, depending on where you live, and the train journey, though scenic, is slow and expensive. And yet in recent years, the team at Speakeasy has been receiving requests to advise people on the other side of the country – such is the need.
Two big developments in the past couple of decades have rendered Wales’s need for Law Centres particularly pressing. The first is the UK government’s deep cuts to legal aid. Their impact on Wales was examined in detail by the Commission on Justice in Wales in 2019.1Justice in Wales for the people of Wales, Commission on Justice in Wales, October 2019.
When the coalition government took whole areas of law out of scope for legal aid, including most housing, debt and welfare issues, Welsh communities were hit especially hard. Further, many law firms located in towns across Wales found they were no longer able to make a profit under the new regime and closed, leaving legal advice deserts across swathes of the country – most dramatically outside the largest cities in the south. Among other inequalities, the UK has stark geographic divides: Welsh people are on average poorer, sicker and older than our English counterparts, and are less likely to be able to afford legal representation if we need it.
Second, since devolution began in 1999, Welsh law has increasingly diverged from English law. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on this, with public attention on COVID-19 restrictions varying on either side of the border, but the legal reality goes deeper. With significant new legislation passed by Senedd Cymru (formally known as the National Assembly), the legal framework in many devolved areas, including social care, housing and education, is completely different, and so are your rights, whether you’re a tenant, a care user or a school pupil. There is no option for Welsh people to piggyback off legal hubs located outside the country. We have to strengthen and grow our own legal infrastructure to represent and spread knowledge within our communities, so that these rights become a reality for all.
Wanting to do something positive in the face of these challenges, we have formed a group under the banner of the North Wales Law Centre Steering Group. Setting up a Law Centre to cover a predominantly rural area is not without its challenges. Transport is a big issue. North Wales is a large area and travel can be difficult, particularly for those who don’t have access to a car. If we ask people to travel to an office located in a coastal town to get advice, we’ll be cutting out some of those who are most in need. To deal with this issue, our ambition is to get a Justice Bus. We’ll renovate an old bus, from which we can run mobile clinics in towns and villages across the region.
Using the Justice Bus (alongside more conventional means!), we will work with other services and community groups to identify the best opportunities to do outreach clinics. We’re already making plans with some of them, like the Aberconwy Domestic Abuse Service. Many people who have a legal issue – whether it’s a landlord refusing to do repairs, an unfair decision about disability benefits or harassment from an ex-partner – don’t see their problem first and foremost as a legal issue. We can’t assume that people will seek us out. Instead, we will have to work in partnership with communities to raise awareness about people’s rights and create low-stakes opportunities for people to drop in for a confidential chat.
The Welsh language is fundamental in our plans for the Law Centre. Many of the areas we will serve form the language’s heartlands. In Gwynedd, 76 per cent of the population speak Welsh. On Anglesey, the figure is 68 per cent and in Conwy 39 per cent. By providing a fully bilingual service that enables people to access justice through the Welsh language, the Law Centre will play its part in strengthening the use of Welsh in these communities. For decades, Welsh and English have had equal status under the law. Our aim is to ensure that no one has to turn to English from Welsh to get advice or to enforce their legal rights.
One Law Centre alone isn’t going to be enough to counteract the huge impact that austerity cuts to legal aid have had on access to justice in Wales. But we hope that our vision for a North Wales Law Centre, working alongside colleagues in local law firms, the advice sector and other voluntary services, will go some way to creating a brighter, fairer future.