The political scene has certainly been turbulent over the last few months. My last six months has also been somewhat interesting, though for very different reasons.
I am director of legal services at Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE). We are a small equality and advice charity in Suffolk and are celebrating our 40th year in existence next year.
There is now a fraction of the number of race equality councils that used to exist around the UK, thanks to cuts in grant funding. ISCRE has survived, partly due to focusing our expertise in specific areas of work, such as public scrutiny of stop and search, and prison equality work. We also recognised a long time ago, that equality and access to justice were overlapping concepts. So our legal services evolved to meet need.
When I joined nearly 10 years ago, we professionalised the individual discrimination complaints work into a specialist legal project, now called Tackling Discrimination in the East (TDE). We were, at first, funded by a grant from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and, when that ended in 2013, we obtained three years’ of funding from the Big Lottery Fund. From 2013 to 2016, with my fellow legal advisors Sallie Davies and Jonathan Parrott working job share, we helped 680 people with advice on all the various strands of discrimination, right through to employment tribunals.
Our clients are, on the whole, the working poor. We refer on those who can afford private lawyers and help those eligible for public funding through the tricky legal aid helpline. Our clients are security guards, nursery nurses, food factory agency staff, care homes staff, drivers, cleaners. The gender mix is about 50:50. Nearly half have a disability, many due to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. About half are white British; the other half are from minority ethnic communities, whether long established, or new migrants from Poland, Portugal and the Baltic States. Many report that the stress of the discrimination has caused them depression and anxiety, requiring medical treatment.
Cases varied from a migrant worker who found all her hours cut when she advised her work she was pregnant; a cleaner racially and religiously harassed by her supervisor, to a large store which was inaccessible in a wheelchair. We achieved many confidential settlements, changes of company policy, numerous reasonable adjustments, and even a few clients were reinstated.
Separately, with the support of Suffolk and North Essex Law Society (and latterly Lawworks), in the 1980s, we set up Suffolk Law Advice Centre. For years, it ticked over with no significant funding and a few trainee solicitors as volunteers.
In 2012, with the loss of most types of civil legal aid, we saw the demand expanding rapidly and knew we needed to grow this service. The Advice Service Transition Fund enabled us to fund the law centre officer, Ann Barber. She is a former barrister with a determined and persuasive manner. Soon, we went from 11 to 70 volunteer solicitors and barristers; tripled the number of appointments available, and provided a range of six specialist clinics, including family, employment and, having gained Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner accreditation, one in immigration. However, due to lack of resources, we still cannot do casework, and waiting times for family and immigration advice can be up to two months.
Over the last year, securing funding has been the usual rollercoaster ride. At the beginning of this year, we obtained a Tudor Trust grant of £81,000, over three years, towards running the Suffolk Law Advice Centre.
However, in March the lottery funding for TDE came to an end. So the big question was: would they give us more funding to continue for a further three years? Initially, we were turned down at the first of the two stages, putting us back three to four months. While we did get through the first stage by January 2016, we knew that getting through the tricky second stage would require significant further work and also a hiatus period, before we would know the result.
So TDE, by far our largest and most costly project, became unfunded in April 2016 and we would not get a result from the application to the Big Lottery Fund before July. Even after reducing costs by providing a skeleton service, we had to ask the trustees to commit a significant sum of reserves to allow us to retain staff until August, by which time we would have a decision.
In the meantime, we needed to bring in some more funds to give us confidence during the anxious waiting period.
I had seen crowdfunding work brilliantly for cases so wondered if it using the CrowdJustice site would work for funding legal projects. A friend, Johanna Kauppinen, a Finnish shipping lawyer, said she would spread the word; and my real-life and Twitter friends were supportive.
CrowdJustice found us a corporate sponsor, Balance Legal Capital LLP, who gave us a large donation. This more than made up for the fact that it isn’t possible to to claim Gift Aid on CrowdJustice (an issue which they are now addressing). We utilised our contacts lists of local law firms, volunteers, members and followers on social media and wrote to them on several occasion during the month. We raised £3,845 from donations from as far away as Texas and Germany; and raised the profile of the organisation and project significantly. While this was only a contribution to unfunded costs, it raised the morale of project staff and I believe contributed to their staying with us, despite the real possibility of redundancy.
On the 12 July 2016, it was announced officially that we have been awarded £349,033 by the Big Lottery Fund. This money will be used to expand the project for the next three years, providing legal advice, workshops and training to tackle discrimination arising from, for example, disability, harassment or race, in Suffolk and Norfolk. We will look at discrimination cases involving access to all kinds of services, employment disputes, housing, transport and education, and offer outreach sessions in the county. There will be workshops and work with local schools to enable people to understand their rights, recognise discriminatory behaviour, and gain the confidence and knowledge to challenge it.
So, now we could just pootle along for another couple of years, with funding secure and life somewhat calmer. However, we have more ambitious plans.
Since 2012 when I organised a small conference called “Life After Legal Aid”, at which Lord Willy Bach and Julie Bishop of the Law Centres Network spoke, I have been part of a small group in Suffolk, aiming long term to become a law centre. We have been speaking to LCN for a few years now, but financial security and protecting current services always took priority over progress. It has also been a case of “when we get ourselves on a firmer financial footing, we will embark on becoming a law centre.”
In the last couple of months, things have taken a step forward. In the context of seeking funding for our programme of public legal education, I had a discussion with Matthew Smerdon of The Legal Education Foundation.
I outlined some of the concerns we have in Suffolk. Essentially they are:
- The lack of access to specialist casework and representation in social welfare law (notably in the areas of public law, housing and asylum) in Suffolk.
- The low level of knowledge about rights, and/or the confidence to enforce them, among Suffolk residents.
- The low level of commitment among public institutions in Suffolk to recognise people’s rights and to be held to account.
- The lack of champions for legal rights in Suffolk.
A new law centre for Suffolk would be best placed to addressed these problems. TLEF have kindly funded a consultant, Matt Howgate of DG Legal, to do some initial work with on a feasibility study and, if positive, an outline business plan, with sufficient detail to submit to funders to secure seed funding to take forward the next phase of development work
I am all too aware of the barriers to success. We get hardly any local government funding currently. Legal aid has been decimated. There are few other sources of grants. Big city firms have historically not shown interest in law centres outside London. Our local firms and lawyers are very supportive, but mostly give their time on our pro bono rotas, rather than the large amounts of funding needed.
I am also aware of our time constraints. I am both a full time legal advisor and share the chief executive and fundraising role with a colleague. There are a shedload of governance, administrative, practical and staffing issues to address to become a law centre
Nevertheless, I have been talking about it for years and even taking the journey so far, has reaped rewards for our clients, securing pro bono offers of help here, and advice about funding there. Our relationship with LCN has been very positive; and we do want to be part of the national debate.
So, here we are, slightly further down the road, and (possibly naively) excited about the future.
Audrey Ludwig is director of legal services, ISCRE. She will be writing regular updates for Legal Voice on progress towards creating a law centre.
- Finally, some much needed housing law advice in Suffolk - 3rd September 2018
- Supervisor shortage puts Suffolk Law Centre plans at risk - 31st May 2018
- Making the most of volunteers - 12th April 2018
- PLE is vital for empowering communities, but lawyers can’t do it alone - 8th March 2018
- ‘Despite turbulent times, we are optimistic about the future’ - 28th July 2016
- We have no public lawyers within a 50-mile radius, and it shows in the quality of local decision-making - 21st April 2016