Threat to legal advice for social care clients as law centres face cutbacks

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

The Legal Services Commission is replacing
grants to nine major community law centres with new contracts that
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

Ann Lewis, director of the North Kensington
Law Centre, 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
survey of clients taken in April, 13 per cent said they had mental
health problems.

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.”

He explained 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.

Nightingale added all law centres were under
threat because of cuts in local authority grants. Hackney Law
Centre in east London is threatened with closure because 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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