HCLC: ‘It will be extremely hard for us to survive further cuts’

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In the second of a new series on LegalVoice, Mary-Rachel McCabe speaks to Hackney Community Law Centre‘s Business Development Officer, Miranda Grell, to find out more about the organisation.

What does HCLC do?
HCLC provides legal advice and representation in the following areas of law: debt, employment, housing, immigration and welfare benefits.

Alongside our casework for individuals we also see social policy as an essential part of our work.  Social policy work involves highlighting general legal problems and issues that the community has raised with us. Whilst solutions can be found on a case by case basis, we recognise that, when we can, we need to tackle the cause of the problems, not just the symptoms.

How many staff does HCLC have and how many volunteers?
We have thirteen staff: a receptionist, an administrator, a legal secretary, three housing solicitors and one caseworker, an immigration caseworker, an employment/welfare benefits solicitor, a benefits caseworker, a business development officer, a part-time finance worker, and a manager.

We have three interns who work four days a week for a period of three months, and on average between five and ten weekly volunteers – so far!

What responsibilities do volunteers/interns have at HCLC?
Volunteers shadow caseworkers, take instructions from clients, file documents at court, assist with the duty solicitor scheme at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court, conduct legal research, write letters, prepare JR bundles, take calls and give advice on the telephone adviceline, assist with outreach services such as HCLC’s Community Law Pop-Up Shops in local libraries, and hang out with us at posh parties in barristers’ chambers!

How is HCLC funded?
Through a mixture of sources. We now have legal aid contracts in housing and immigration law only. We are also in receipt of a London Borough of Hackney Grant, and grants from charitable foundations such as Trust for London, Lloyds TSB, the London Legal Support Trust, and individual and corporate donors.  Some people and organisations have donated a number of services in kind.  Our website, for example, was designed and built for us pro bono by professional web designer Jon Worth and Matrix Chambers funded the first two years’ expenses of volunteer interns staffing our Community Law Shops Pop-Up advice service.

How many cases a year does HCLC conduct under legal aid?
We are now seeing an average of 2000 clients a year.  We conduct cases not only under legal aid but also under ‘legal help’ and ‘Hackney Core funding’.  Our caseload has gone up 40% in the last year, due in part to the opening of numerous one-off outreach advice sessions.  The level of advice we give ranges from one-off advice to representation in the Court of Appeal

What types of cases are they?
Housing: Illegal evictions, possessions, homelessness, disrepair.

Immigration: Now only asylum as most other immigration matters have been taken out of scope.

Employment: Since employment law was also removed from scope, we are now giving employment law advice through a grant from ‘Trust for London’.

Welfare Benefits: Through a special grant from the London Borough of Hackney we have been able to employ a part-time benefits worker.  This is invaluable as welfare benefits went out of scope in April 2013 and many benefits and housing problems are linked.  We help people with DLA and ESA appeals and we have a lot of cases involving EU nationals who have been unable to exercise their treaty rights and claim the benefits they are entitled to.  The bedroom tax is also a growing issue in Hackney.

Debt: We assist residents of Hackney Homes with their debt law problems (funded by Hackney Homes).

What have the highlights of the last twelve months been?
We have  maintained a high quality of service and continue to win many homelessness appeals in the County Court, and obtain accommodation for destitute mothers with children via judicial review challenges in the Court of Appeal.

Our hard work is reflected in the grant of four awards: the Law Society Excellence Award 2012 for In-House Solicitor of the Year; the Halsbury Legal Award 2013 in the ‘Pro Bono Team of the Year’ category; the LawWorks Pro Bono Award 2013 for ‘Best Partnership in Pro Bono; and Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year 2013 in the Immigration Law category.

Starting Law Pop-Up Shop services in local libraries has also been a highlight, as well as taking forward our Mind the Justice Gap public legal education project, in conjunction with the Justice Gap magazine and the University College London’s Centre for Access to Justice, which aims to raise awareness of the law among young people in Hackney by visiting local schools and colleges.  We received a grant this year from Allen and Overy to help fund the production of an online advice guide for young Hackney residents aged 16-25, and in April, Mind The Justice Gap hosted an excellent panel debate at London’s City Hall – more on that here.

We also provided training to our counterparts in Hackney’s Housing Options Team on possession proceedings and warrants, on welfare benefits to numerous voluntary agencies in the Borough and we organised a one day school on illegal evictions.

What impact has LASPO had on HCLC?
Since April 2013 our legal aid contract has been reduced by 50% which will have a long-term knock-on effect on our funding. The requirement that clients must provide full evidence of means for the three months prior to the grant of full legal aid is a high administrative burden for them to pass, so we often end up providing pro bono services in emergencies to prevent destitution and/or street homelessness.  Welfare benefits advice is completely removed from the scope of legal aid so the only service we offer in this area is that which is funded for our benefits caseworker three days a week.  This means that our most vulnerable, disabled and elderly clients are often without support in appeals against arbitrary decisions by ATOS to deny them Employment Support Allowance.  Our ability to assist with immigration problems has also shrunk to asylum only.

Prior to the cessation of Legal Help to fund advice for benefits problems we could help resolve problems early before debts escalated.  Our reduced Housing legal aid contract now restricts us to advising people only after they are threatened with homelessness by having been served with possession summonses or eviction notices.  Such action is usually due to rent arrears, often caused by the DWP’s failure to properly deal with people’s Housing Benefit claims, and this has been exacerbated by the implementation of the benefit cap and the bedroom tax.  Due to the increased volume of possession summons by landlords cases are waiting three months for listing in the County Court when previously they could have been resolved before Court action by a simple appeal letter to the DWP or the relevant local authority.

What is the future for HCLC if the government goes ahead with its planned further cuts to legal aid?
If the further proposed cuts to legal aid go ahead we will be unable to help anyone who cannot prove they have been lawfully present in the UK for the preceding year.  Many of our clients, whilst lawfully present, do not have the evidence to prove it, often due to the incompetency of UKBA.

We will also be unable to be paid for our judicial review work until after we have obtained permission to proceed to full judicial review.  90% of our public law cases settle before permission is granted as they have strong merits, so we would not get paid for any of this complex work.  Our survival and ability to serve our vulnerable clients must therefore be seen in the context of challenging times!

We have raised our profile to alert a wider audience to the importance of our work which has resulted in more interest and donations.   We have obtained a waiver from the Law Society to practice in private work.  We have recruited members with particular expertise to our Board of Directors and high quality interns and volunteers to assist our caseworkers on a daily basis. We take our services out to the community rather than waiting for them to come to us but it will be extremely hard for us to survive in our current form beyond October 2015.

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