Advice in a Leafy Suburb

Almost a year ago, with many areas of London reeling after nights of rioting, the word on many people’s lips – delivered with incredulity – was ‘Ealing? Riots in leafy Ealing? Croydon or Clapham Junction OK, but Ealing?’ Hard to imagine what social problems there might be in the ‘Queen of the Suburbs’ to bring its youth onto the streets to loot and burn.

In reality of course, ‘leafy Ealing’ is a caricature. The largest of the West London boroughs, Ealing is widely diverse in terms of ethnicity and distribution of wealth. Overall Ealing ranks within the top 20% most deprived local authority areas in the country, with areas of intense deprivation in east and west. In Southall for example – one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the UK – deprivation levels across all communities are extremely high. Nearly a third live in poor housing. The community ranks among the 1% most income deprived for older people and among the 5% most health deprived in the country.

Multiple deprivation gives rise, even in the best of times, to high levels of demand for social welfare law advice. All the more surprising then that advice provision in Ealing has always been sparse. All the more devastating a blow when the key not-for-profit provider for eight years Law For All – winner of council grants and holder of LSC contracts – went bust in July 2011 leaving a vacuum at the heart of provision at a time when need is at its highest.

In circumstances such as these often are the best ideas formed. Inspired by the doughty Sue James – Ealing resident and solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre – a group came together, with backgrounds in nfp advice and private practice, determined to try to plug the advice gap and meet advice needs in new and better ways. The chance to build something new, while longer established services are fighting to adapt to changing circumstances, proved an irresistible challenge and in October last year Ealing Law Centre was born.

Holistic response
Certainly a new Law Centre is not of itself a revolutionary idea. We do though envisage doing it a little differently. We have fostered partnerships with local community based organisations to provide legal advice alongside their existing services, deep in the communities they and we seek to serve. This reflects a view of advice as part of a holistic response to the complex problems experienced by the most disadvantaged members of society, rather than as an intervention delivered through a silo.

We will seek to develop innovative ways of advice delivery; utilise technology where we can; build capacity of ‘problem noticers’; engage with and train local volunteers in delivering parts of the service; develop strong pro-bono networks to both support delivery and infrastructure; deliver legal education programmes and support to key client groups; and we will develop genuinely accessible modes of access for hard to reach groups such as young people.

Achieving that vision in the face of a swingeing assault on publicly funded legal services since is, to say the least, something of a challenge. We need to raise funds to build on our fledgling pro-bono services.

We have to be in a position to bid for what remains of legal aid contracts by this September – less than a year since we first sat down together to become a steering group. Some hope, you may think. The only money we currently have in the bank is the crucial seed and development funding we obtained from the brilliant London Legal Support Trust.

Remarkably we’ve taken an enormous step toward achieving this. Ealing Council, as aware of the gaping hole in provision as anyone else, commissioned for an interim one-year contract to provide generalist level advice across the range of social welfare law areas. We worked extremely hard to put together a consortium of providers to bid, crucially with Nucleus Legal Advice Centre taking on lead agency function to provide the necessary solidity. To our delight we have been informed this week that our consortium has been successful. We have a chance to start building the sort of service which we know is needed – something we can build a specialist layer on top of to create a seamless service.

Many challenges ahead, first to get the service up and running by 8 August – the first anniversary of the Ealing riots. Watch this space.

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