Authors:Tessa Lieven Wright
Last updated:2023-09-26
Legal aid: fighting for the future – Positivity without complacency
Marc Bloomfield
In the second of this series on the state of legal aid across England and Wales, Tessa Lieven Wright speaks to three organisations in Manchester about how they and their clients are surviving austerity and the cost of living crisis.
There are two stories to tell about Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC). The first is a story of hope; about a thriving, campaign-driven Law Centre that, against all odds, was created following the wreckage caused by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), when most other legal aid providers were crumbling. The second mirrors others across the country: a Law Centre struggling to cope under the massive demand for its services caused by the LASPO cuts.
I travelled to GMLC to speak to its frontline workers. Jon Robins, a journalist and one of LAG’s trustees, visited the Law Centre in 2018 for his book, Justice in a Time of Austerity, and I was lucky enough to meet with his interviewees, who are still working and supporting it now. I also had the pleasure of speaking with people from both Manchester Central Foodbank and the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU), to learn more about the effects of austerity and Manchester’s fighting response to it.
The rise of a Law Centre
Jason Tetley, director of GMLC, joined it after Jon’s visit, in October 2018. Despite arriving two years after it opened,1See September 2016 Legal Action 3. he still feels passionately about its origin story. ‘People could have sat on their hands,’ he says. ‘This Law Centre is a concrete example of a campaigning group that came together and worked hard to exercise their rights. There was no big funder, there was no political involvement.’
Denise McDowell is one of the founding group of legal aid lawyers, community advice organisations and trade unionists who set up GMLC in 2014. She is now director of the GMIAU, but is still on the Law Centre’s board. She speaks with great pride about its establishment: ‘It was set up in direct response to the legal aid cuts. It was a real story about people coming together and going against the flow.’
It cannot be denied that the establishment of GMLC went against the flow. Law Centres Network data shows that, at one point, there were nine Law Centres across Greater Manchester’s 10 boroughs. In 2014, when GMLC was established, there were only two, Rochdale and Bury, both of which have now closed. GMLC serves 2.8m people with only 14 members of staff.
In its first year, GMLC undertook 367 cases, 232 appeals and helped clients with lost benefits claim back more than £370,000. It did all this with four employees. In 2021/22, the welfare benefits team secured £1.13m for its clients and the Law Centre completed 1,072 cases.
Its rapid expansion, shown by these figures, is testament to how hard the Law Centre has kept fighting in the face of intense challenges caused by LASPO, COVID-19 and, most recently, the cost of living crisis.
GMLC’s community-focused origins mean that it has never been short of local support. Jason tells me that it currently has 40 volunteers, including students from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Manchester. Many of those coming through this scheme have gone on to become barristers, and two are now on GMLC's board.
A large part of its volunteers’ work goes into helping with the campaigns. Since the beginning, campaigning has been in GMLC’s blood. Its manifesto, published in 2019, states that one of its aims is to ‘[c]ampaign with other like-minded individuals and organisations for change’. Jason says he believes that the campaigning efforts have only ‘developed and become stronger’ since the Law Centre was established.
Currently, GMLC works with 150–200 community-based organisations across Greater Manchester. One of its recent campaigns involved publishing an open letter written with Shelter, urging MPs and policymakers to take action and help fix the housing crisis, stating: ‘There is no longer any time to delay changes, or defer responsibility. We are at crisis point.’ As well as GMLC and Shelter, it was signed by various advice providers, including Citizens Advice offices, and barristers, and contains demands including a restoration of the local housing allowance rates to account for rent increases and an end to Housing Act 1988 s21 evictions.
However, GMLC is not only involved in high-profile, attention-grabbing campaigns and lobbying; its main campaigning is community-based. Jason explains that the Law Centre’s core aim is to ‘develop a hub where communities, campaigners and advisers can come together and develop community justice’. He argues that while big coalitions hold parliamentary weight, it is the local activism that makes the difference.
Description: GMLC_s Ajibike Babalola_ Cian Hickey and Jason Tetley
GMLC’s Ajibike Babalola, Cian Hickey and Jason Tetley at the 90th anniversary Bexley Square Commemoration in Salford, in 2021 (photo: Greater Manchester Law Centre)
The Law Centre actively collaborates with the Greater Manchester Tenants Union (GMTU). Kathy Cosgrove, head of GMLC’s housing and homelessness advice services, explains that this work with the tenants union is vital for accessing clients: ‘[GMTU] tend to bring people into the Law Centre via their outreach work. It’s a two-pronged process: the tenants union do the campaigning side of it and then we help people know their legal rights.’
The Law Centre runs ‘know your rights’ legal information sessions that have been attended by over 500 delegates. ‘It’s about trying to empower people,’ Jason says. This approach underpins much of GMLC’s campaigning work. It works with community and frontline groups to gain access to individuals and instruct them on the legal routes available to them. ‘[Frontline groups] are the ones embedded in the community; they understand the problems. We can stand here and say, “We’re shoulder to shoulder with you”,’ Kathy says.
Both Jason and Kathy stress that the Law Centre is not seen as trying to ‘take over’ during these campaigns. It recently helped GMTU in a Rochdale-based campaign. ‘It was led by the tenants union,’ Jason says. ‘We were giving some legal advice to the campaign, but we weren’t trying to take the case over. It’s about working alongside these groups.’ He explains how important it is to remember that the law is only one element in any campaign for justice. ‘A purely legalistic solution will not always necessarily work.’
Building an ‘anti-poverty community’
GMLC works closely with the Manchester Central Foodbank. Matt Stallard is chair of its trustee board. He tells me that the foodbank, like LASPO, is turning 10 this year. ‘It’s a conflicting anniversary,’ Matt says, as while ‘there is a lot to celebrate, especially when you think about communities coming together in the face of austerity, our aim has always been to not exist.’
Description: Painting images for the Can You Hear Me Now online archive of testimonies and images...
Painting images for the Can You Hear Me Now? online archive of testimonies and images from Manchester Central Foodbank users (Matt Stallard pictured left) (photo: Get It Done/Manchester Central Foodbank)
Similar to the Law Centre, the foodbank has seen the number of people relying on its services grow massively since its doors opened. Last year, it provided over 4,000 people with ‘three-day emergency food supplies’. Matt explains that the foodbank has seen three spikes: one following the universal credit rollout; one at the beginning of the pandemic; and then, most recently, during the cost of living crisis. It serves two main groups, he says: circumstantial individuals who come once or twice; and people who have no recourse to public funds, including asylum-seekers.
Thanks to a pathfinder grant from the Trussell Trust, the foodbank now has the money to carry out advice and rights-based work. The list of projects on which it’s working is exhaustive. Matt says they all sit under the umbrella of ‘grassroots-led anti-poverty pilot projects’. Some examples include: working with six schools across Greater Manchester to connect their pupils’ families with advice providers; a city-wide benefits uptake campaign, which has put £2,500 in people’s pockets; and a participatory programme with foodbank users to create toolkits.
‘We’re trying to build an anti-poverty community that will highlight the role of Law Centres and other advice centres, and show [how they are] absolutely fundamental to the community,’ Matt says. It is clear that these independent public service providers in Greater Manchester view themselves as operating within a network that is only getting stronger – and angrier.
Kathy believes ‘there’s a feeling in Manchester that people are starting to fight back. There’s an activism that I’m not sure we had a few years ago. People are feeling emboldened that things can change, and that is worth fighting for. You have to think, even if we do lose this time, it’s worth it to build those networks with other groups.’ Matt echoes her sentiments: ‘Manchester is a booming, young city and that encourages activism.’
They all agree that this activism stems largely from the government’s pandemic response. ‘COVID showed that the state can be benevolent when it wants to be. We had support and now it’s been taken away,’ Jason says. ‘There were some really amazing things that happened during COVID; trying to unwind that network will be really difficult.’
The foodbank saw its highest level of support ever following the pandemic and a number of hyper-local food projects were started as a result of increased demand. Matt tells me that there is now an independent food aid network in Manchester: ‘We now have a patchwork of resources across the city.’
Out of scope
However, despite the optimism present across Greater Manchester, there is still the painful reality of how difficult it is to provide the support urgently needed. ‘I have never seen anything like it: the number and the scale of rent increases,’ Kathy says. LASPO took huge areas of law out of scope for legal aid, but GMLC still offers advice on these issues. Kathy explains that it often gives advice on challenging rent rises – an issue for which, since LASPO, legal aid no longer provides – facilitated by its campaign network to reach people in need.
Denise, from GMIAU, faces similar issues with her clients’ cases. LASPO removed most immigration cases from the scope of legal aid. She tells me that the most significant change was that applications for refugee family reunion were taken out of scope. The result is refugees who are granted leave to remain are forced to pay private legal fees to apply to bring their family members here.
Bringing your family to the UK is still a fundamental legal right once you are granted the right to remain, and yet the opportunity for free legal representation has been removed. These people, many of whom have escaped persecution, danger and abject poverty, are welcomed to our country by being told they will need to pay large sums to reunite with their family members. ‘It’s these people who have the least voice and the least political and social capital to make a noise,’ Jason says, ‘and yet they’re the ones suffering the consequences of these legal aid cuts.’
He paints a desperate picture of the post-LASPO situation in the North West. ‘There is a justice gap [here],’ he says. ‘There are only three people – and they’re not all full time – who offer employment advice in Manchester.’ In context, this means there is around one employment adviser per million citizens. Jason says the situation is so bad that GMLC workers regularly encounter clients who are desperately seeking advice and come from far beyond Greater Manchester. ‘We get calls from Staffordshire, Cheshire, Lancashire where there is no community-based employment advice. We had one client from Oldham who had been to 21 different organisations looking for advice.’
Extraordinarily, GMLC was recently approached by a man from Newcastle looking for housing advice. Jason explains that, despite trebling in size over the past five years, ‘we’re not even touching the sides in terms of demand. We’re doing 1,100 cases and dealing with 11,000 enquiries a year.’ There is simply no way that the Law Centre can hope to have the capacity to deal with the scale of the problems in the current climate. That is why its network of connections with other community organisations and local groups is so vital.
Stay positive but keep fighting
There is a huge amount to be positive about in Manchester right now and it is important to emphasise that. As Kathy says: ‘People feel like the traditional ways are changing and don’t work.’ Young people are invigorated by the knowledge that change is possible and the city’s strong campaigning network is testament to that.
Nonetheless, there is a warning against excessive optimism. Kathy ends our interview by saying: ‘Before LASPO, people had a right to free legal advice about a range of issues and a lot of it was before people got into crisis – early and preventative legal advice which they now don’t have. I don’t think we can rely on things like campaigns to replace the right to free legal advice.’
Similarly, Denise warns me: ‘This must not be a celebration that is complacent.’ Proper investment in the legal aid scheme is desperately needed, and while GMLC is a powerful story of perseverance and resistance, it is not safe from the dangers posed by cuts to legal aid. It is vital that all of us, whether involved in the law or not, persevere – in any way available to us – to protect our legal advice providers. GMLC is testament to their infinite importance in our society. As co-founder and initial chair of GMLC, John Nicholson, said in the Law Centre’s first annual report: ‘[L]et’s together keep up this fight.’
1     See September 2016 Legal Action 3. »