The advantages of dual membership of Citizens Advice and the Law Centres Network.
Law Centres and local Citizens Advice services frequently provide complementary services and work together very closely. However, at present there are three charities that belong to both Citizens Advice and the Law Centres Network (LCN): Sheffield; Bradford; and Kirklees. There are advantages to service users, funders and the organisations in combining services this way.
Advantages of the dual membership model
•Better co-ordinated services, better tracking of outcomes and impact for clients, and less risk of clients getting lost in referral between two separate organisations.
•The Law Centre no longer has to deliver reception and triage as these are delivered through the Citizens Advice aspect of the organisation.
•A stronger voice in discussions with the council and other funders.
•Both agencies are local, so funders can be confident that their funding will be targeted at local residents and there is no duplication.
•Partnerships/mergers are favoured by funders for increased visibility and effectiveness.
•Support is provided by both Citizens Advice nationally and LCN.
•Better support for qualified lawyers and specialists employed by Citizens Advice through becoming part of a legal practice.
•Specialists and lawyers can use the Law Centre’s case management system, which is more suited to complex casework than Citizens Advice’s Casebook.
•Both networks are great brands with good public recognition.
•Economies of scale, sharing the same back-office functions and trustee board.
Achieving a dual network model
The model can be achieved through organic development and merger, which need not be mutually exclusive. I am working with Citizens Advice Mid-North Yorkshire, which is seeking additional funding to increase specialist services and employ lawyers. It will gradually develop organically to a point where it can apply to join LCN (employing two solicitors). The two services will be one organisation run by one trustee board.
If you are considering a merger, the Charity Commission advises
that it is important not to underestimate the cost. It undoubtedly takes a lot of management time and careful consideration of a wide range of issues. Some of the resources required could be sourced pro bono, such as trustee time and expertise supplemented by pro bono legal advice, eg, through the LawWorks Not-for-Profits Programme
. LCN and Citizens Advice would also be able to provide support and guidance.
An example of a successful merger is Kirklees. I asked Nick Whittingham, CEO of Kirklees Citizens Advice and Law Centre, to tell me how they did it. Nick explained it was an organic, evolutionary process. When the Law Centre was set up in 2005, the Citizens Advice CEO was on the steering group. Both organisations became sub-contractors to the local authority, and subsequently they were part of a legal aid contract consortium. They shared premises and that encouraged joint working.
Then, the Citizens Advice CEO started to plan towards retirement and the idea of a merger began to seem like a reality. Following due diligence processes and the approval of both boards of trustees, Nick became deputy CEO for a year before the Citizens Advice CEO retired. He now manages a service that is fully integrated, so clients don’t have to repeat their stories if they need specialist legal advice, and there is less drop-out. Together, the organisations are also more secure financially.
Nick says before the merger, the Law Centre’s finances were tight. Citizens Advice had some reserves, which gave the merged organisation the ability to lever in additional funding, expanding into housing and securing more diversified funding, which did not all need to be replaced at the same time. The Law Centre’s specialisms levered in funding under the EU and Hong Kong settlement schemes as well as refugee and asylum support.
They now work at all levels in welfare benefits. General advice and claims are dealt with by the Citizens Advice team, appeals are dealt with by specialists, and Upper Tribunal appeals by a solicitor – Nick estimates that they deal with about 10 per cent of all legal aid-funded Upper Tribunal cases nationally.
If it’s happening in Yorkshire, it could happen in your county or city. It would be great to see the significant benefits of this model becoming more widespread.