Law centres:experts in crisis management

BURIED away in the Central London Law Centre vaults are a series of files containing the details of the steady stream of cash crises which have hit the centre in its 18-year existence.

But to date, the law centre, which has just moved into new offices, has somehow managed to weather each storm. And this pretty well sums up the history of the law centres movement.

There are currently around 50 law centres in the UK, all battling to keep their grants in the face of an ever tightening government squeeze on local authority spending.

The commitment of both the Conservative Government and the Labour Party to radically overhaul the legal aid system has only added to law centres' uncertain future.

The last crisis to hit the CLLC occurred just before Christmas when administrator Amaia Portelli was faced with the task of having to tell staff there was no money to pay their wages. Fortunately, a £10,000 donation from Titmuss Sainer Dechert arrived in time to pay the centre's eight salaried staff.

But another storm is on its way, unless Portelli can find more sources of funding. And she is hoping that the City lawyers who joined Lord Woolf at last Friday's official opening of the centre's comfortable and spacious new offices just off Leicester Square will be sufficiently impressed with the outfit to pledge some money.

So far, with the honourable exception of Titmuss Sainer Dechert and Clifford Chance, her many efforts to get funding from City firms have failed.

“One of the problems has been that there is a great push for law firms to do pro bono work, but we can do the legal work ourselves,” says Portelli. “It's money that we need to help pay our salaries.”

The CLLC has a core of in-house lawyers, backed up by long standing volunteers who are experts in their fields, such as 2 Garden Court barrister Leslie Thomas, who chairs the management committee.

So what how do law centres fit into the UK's legal framework? According to Isabel Manley, the former chair of the Law Centres Federation, who now runs Immunity, the centre for people with Aids and HIV, what law centres have in common is the fact they are non-profit making, community-based and cover areas of the law which are not served by solicitors in private practice.

As such, they are distinct from both advice agencies and private law firms. Above everything they cherish their independence and, although they do legal aid work, don't want to become dependant on legal aid.

In fact, law centres are very worried about the government's legal aid reform plans. “Grants give us flexibility, as does the current legal aid scheme. What is worrying is the suggestion that the legal aid budget will be capped and there will be regional legal aid committees deciding which areas of the law should be priorities for legal aid,” explains Manley.

Law centres will also want to see a lot more flesh on the bones of Labour's promised community legal service before they commit themselves to a project which could infringe on their independence.

The future is rosy in terms of the level of demand there is for the services of law centres, but grim if government grants continue to decline.