Service users could lose legal representation

Social services clients will lose out on legal representation
and advice because of funding changes, community law centres are
warning, writes Rachel Downey.

The Legal Services Commission is replacing grants to nine major
law community law centres with contracts, which cannot be used to
represent people at welfare, employment or education tribunals.
Staff at the centres – six of which are in inner London – also
claim they will be forced to stop providing advice services for
both clients and professionals if the proposals go ahead.

The LSC changes come as the Association of London Government is
reviewing its funding to law centres and is considering
prioritising outer London boroughs over inner ones. Alongside
severe cuts to local authority funding, the new changes could see
some law centres lose up to half of their annual income.

Ann Lewis, director of the North Kensington Law Centre in inner
London, said the centre provided an advice service used by social
care professionals for their clients because “often local authority
legal departments do not have the expertise on housing, benefits or
immigration”. But the centre will not be able to fund this work if
the cuts to grants go through.

“We get a lot of vulnerable clients,” she added. “We help people
who private practices would not take on because they have lots of
needs and require a lot of time.” In a sample of clients taken in
April, 13 per cent said they had mental health problems. Lewis also
fears the centre’s work with an advocacy network Kensington
and Chelsea Advocacy Alliance for older people and people with
disabilities is now in jeopardy.

Bob Nightingale, chairperson of the Law Centres Federation, said
the ALG proposal was flawed. “When we are dealing with intensive
case work for the most socially excluded, it’s more useful to
put larger sums of money into fewer places because if you spread it
so everyone gets just a little, nobody gets any help at all.”

Nightingale added that the federation had no dispute with the
Legal Services Commission over the replacement of the special
grants with contracts but wants tribunal representation and
additional advice work protected in the new contracts. “The
contracts with LSC are too restrictive,” he said. “There should be
money in the budget for preventative work and community work.

“Law centres are really keen to continue that work –
educating people who have day to day contact with socially excluded
people. All that educational work would be impossible if the cuts
go through. This is dangerous in the long-term future of work with
socially excluded people. We will miss out lots of people who
cannot access legal help anywhere else.”

Nightingale added that all law centres were under threat because
of cuts in local authority grants. Hackney Law Centre in east
London is threatened with closure because of its grant from the
local authority has been slashed. “Every single law centre in the
country must be worried about what’s happening in Hackney,”
he said.










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