Greater Manchester Law Centre event brings organisations together to improve access to justice in the North West
If we are to tackle the complex needs facing our communities, we need a more co-ordinated approach to resolving legal need. In its 2021 report, The COVID decade: understanding the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19
, the British Academy found that the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and differences, but has also created new ones that will be with us for a decade or more.
Jason Tetley, director of Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC), understands the need for this co-ordinated approach and organised a meeting on 19 May, hosted by Thompsons Solicitors, to galvanise support across the North West around access to justice. He knows that one Law Centre for the whole of Greater Manchester cannot deliver the services needed. He described the situation as being not dissimilar to the Hunger Games – only the resilient and resourceful are able to access advice. One recent client had been through 22 agencies looking for employment advice before he came to the Law Centre.
The aim of the event, titled Mind the Gap, was to foster links between GMLC and its community partners to deliver free legal advice through pro bono and other community partners’ programmes, re-establish access to advice across the region and bring additional support to communities. While doing so, GMLC will still campaign for policy changes, specifically around legal aid. ‘This will not replace legal aid, but enhance it,’ Tetley said. Campaigning for change sits at the heart of GMLC’s mission and was central to its origins in late 2014, following the closure of South Manchester Law Centre, when a group of legal aid lawyers, trade unionists and community advice organisations came together with the aim of starting a new Law Centre.
The ‘Gap’ of the event’s title actually referred to three problems:
•the justice gap – in the provision of advice and legal aid;
•the legal gap – in law (eg, its response to the pandemic); and
•the knowledge gap – in community legal knowledge and how to access it.
Salford and Eccles MP Rebecca Long-Bailey opened the event, quoting the ancient playwright Sophocles: ‘”If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.” But universal access to justice is far from a reality here in the UK. Justice is being rationed.’1See also Hansard HC Debates vol 709 col 80WH, 22 February 2022.
She had the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 in mind, which removed the right to advice and representation for many areas of law in 2013, but went on to identify what she saw as three major causes of the legal aid crisis2See note 1 above.
– ie, the justice gap.
Polina Sparks from Long Covid Support
spoke of the problems that the UK’s 1.2m sufferers have experienced since the start of the pandemic – including social justice issues concerning employment rights, benefits and health services. The failure to recognise long Covid as a disability is the legal gap that Tetley had defined. Many of the Long Covid Support group, a number of whom worked on the front line during the pandemic and didn’t see their families, are still facing ill health two years after their initial illness.
These complex needs call for more innovative ways of addressing them. Disadvantaged people often experience multiple problems that are a mix of legal and non-legal troubles, and the single-issue approach to lawyering is not appropriate or relevant for them. People often do not know they have a legal problem or that a lawyer can help them with it. I was pleased to be asked to speak at the event and to bring to the debate my many years of experience as a front-line housing lawyer. The strategic approach we have with public health must also be replicated with legal issues. The knowledge gap to which Tetley referred can be filled by lawyers working with other agencies, such as health, where people are already accessing services. Maternity Action is doing this with its project at the Wirral Women and Children’s Hospital, integrating legal advice into maternity services and helping pregnant women to keep their jobs, thereby avoiding poverty and financial stress.
Tetley closed the event with details of the project on which GMLC has been working with Citizens Advice North Lancashire since October 2020 to provide community advice to litigants in person, which has since advised more than 6,000 individuals. There is clearly a need for more resources, and galvanising this support was a key premise of the evening. But Tetley was clear about it being the right support: ‘With pro bono, we need to ensure that it matches community need and that the client’s voice and collective experience in campaigning is included.’
It was inspiring to see so many interested people in attendance. The event was one of a series that GMLC is organising around access to justice issues, the next of which will be on inquests. For updates, see the GMLC website