Some 50 Law Centre lawyers, plus clients and supporters, marched on 11 Downing Street this month to call on Gordon Brown to protect the civil legal aid budget and improve funding for community law projects, for which it has been a bad year. "Sadly, Humberside Law Centre was closed this year, leaving that community without recourse to independent legal advice for employment, discrimination and immigration issues," says Steve Hynes, director of the Law Centres Federation. "Can you imagine another public service where this would be allowed to happen? A school or hospital calling in the liquidators?"
Last month, 115 MPs signed an early day motion in response to the drop in community legal services spending and called on the Government to adopt a five-year plan to develop a national network of Law Centres. Earlier in the year Liverpool City Council cut its lifeline to Vauxhall Community Law and Information Centre when it refused to renew its £73,000 three-year grant. It has issued redundancy notices to its five staff and will close its doors after 32 years.
A decision by East Riding Council to withhold just £15,000 means it is also the end of the road for Humberside Law Centre after 15 years. While the city council continues to provide an annual £110,000 grant, the latest cut left the centre's management committee with no cash for wages. "The impact is going to be drastic because the law centre had the reputation for taking on and winning difficult cases," predicts Denise Canniffe, a former trustee of Humberside Law Centre, which is best known for advising redundant Hull fishermen in their epic legal battle to win £10m in redundancy payments. But Canniffe, who is deaf, has her own reasons to be grateful to the law centre after she approached its advisers when she was working for the local authority and encountered "some pretty crass discrimination" from a work colleague. The centre also represented her a second time when her hearing dog, Jude, was refused entry to a pub. She was awarded £1,200 in damages at Hull County Court in a test case under the Disability Discrimination Act.
"There are lots of organisations that provide general help, but no other organisation that takes cases to the level that the law centre did," Canniffe says. She adds that there are no specialist services covering immigration, housing or disability discrimination advice in the area. "It's a basic human right to have legal representation if you've been discriminated against," she continues, "but so many people don't qualify for legal aid, and they just can't afford it."
"The tragedy is that thousands of people in Vauxhall who need independent legal advice may now face the downward spiral of real social exclusion," says David Taylor, senior solicitor of the Vauxhall centre. "As a front line service it is able to help people before their legal problems escalate. Who'll fill that void if we're shut down?"
On 21 January, the Legal Services Commission wrote the following to Liverpool City Council: "Vauxhall Community Law and Information Centre is the sole provider in this area. Any reduction will leave a significant gap in the provision [of legal services], particularly for non-eligible clients."