JusticeWatch: The towns where there’s no access to free legal advice

Book your place now
The Sharing Solutions Conference aimed at the advice sector takes place at Allen & Overy on May 21. It a partnership between with the Advice Service Alliance, the Access to Justice Foundation, LegalVoice and the Litigant in Person Support Strategy.

With interactive sessions focused on relevant and topical issues such as supporting distressed clients and the use of tech for good, our aim is for attendees to leave the event with relevant and practical information that can support the delivery of services in their organisations.

More information and tickets can be found here.

The event is free to attend, although there is a small refundable fee to confirm attendance. There are travel grants for organisations based more than 50 miles from London.

The towns where there’s no access to free legal advice
‘In Ebbw Vale there are no legal aid lawyers, no Citizens Advice and no law centre,’ I wrote for the Guardian’s Society pages on legal aid advice deserts post-LASPO. ‘In Wales, there were 31 providers of publicly funded benefits advice: now there are three. The number of firms providing legal aid has fallen by 29% compared with 20% in England.’

I was drawing on interviews done in South Wales, Ipswich and Bolton as part of the Justice in a Time of Austerity project, a collaboration between Cardiff University and the Justice Gap.

‘The south Wales valleys, rural and remote, are a legal aid advice desert. Few places in the UK are as overlooked as Ebbw Vale,’ commented Dr Daniel Newman, a law lecturer based at Cardiff University who gave evidence to the Commission on Justice in Wales on advice deserts. Mid-Wales, the north-east and the Vale of Glamorgan could also be labelled deserts, he added.

‘We’ve seen closures of law centres and Citizens Advice branches, and a reliance on small voluntary groups, often church-led, to try and fill the gaps. Laspo has been a disaster for those who would otherwise been helped, but what’s less understood is that it’s seriously damaged what remained of the advice sector by removing an income stream.’
Dr Daniel Newman

Richard Wilkinson, chief executive of Citizens Advice Bolton, said the sector had been ‘decimated’. ‘It’s “virtually impossible for someone to access specialist legal advice in social welfare law,’ he said.

I had previously visited Bolton eight years ago. The bureau was a shadow of its former self. In 2011 it had 55 staff, now it has 24. ‘We had four funding sources, and 70% of income was from legal aid. Now we have half the income and five times the number of income streams, such as a £3,000 grant for an outreach project and £5,000 to work local schools.’

Suffolk Law Centre was ‘a tiny oasis in a vast legal advice desert in this corner of East Anglia’. ‘There isn’t a single housing lawyer in Suffolk. We haven’t had once since 2014,’ says the director of legal services, Audrey Ludwig. ‘We are a sticking plaster,’ she says. ‘We have waiting lists of several months.’

Meanwhile the Justice Gap reported that Hackney Community Law Centre was facing closure after the council this week voted through a 45% cut to its funding.The law centre had suffered a cut of £60,000 to its debt advice service last year, and has already seen a drop in its council funding of 56% since October 2017.

£1 an hour for detainees ‘not inhumane’
Immigration detainees working for £1 an hour was is lawful because it was there to ‘relieve boredom and not earn income’, the High Court has ruled – according to a repot in the Daily Telegraph. Four detainees claimed they were being exploited by the Home Office’s “blanket rate” of pay for work while held in immigration removal centres. They said IRCs rely on their labour – which includes working as cleaners, barbers ‘and even organising legal advice surgeries’ – but the Home Office argued that detainees are under no obligation to carry out paid work.

‘It is not, in my view, inhumane to set a fixed rate for paid activity that a detained person is not compelled to do,’ ruled Mr Justice Murray finding the policy lawful.

‘Ridiculously low’ immigration fees
The Law Society’s Gazette reported that the Legal Aid Agency has been criticised for a ‘ridiculously low’ £35 case fee to provide telephone immigration advice services. The agency is tendering for non-means tested telephone advice on immigration matters to anyone detained in police custody. A ‘frequently asked questions’ document states that providers will be permitted to bid a maximum of £35 (excluding VAT) for a closed case.

Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, described the fee as ‘ridiculously’ low. ‘One has to ask how much time or effort the Ministry of Justice anticipates could therefore be spent on each call and therefore what is the intention of the service? It clearly reflects MoJ’s disregard for those who might wish to use the service,’ she said.

Opportunity missed
Lord Bach gave his verdict of the MoJ’s LASPO review – also in the Gazette. Labour peer headed up a commission on access to justice which spent nearly two years compiling evidence. ‘I did not expect the government to pick each and every [point]. But looking at it in the round, very little of what we said has been taken on board. It is a profound regret. An opportunity missed.’ The barrister was giving a keynote address at the Hammersmith & Fulham Advice Conference in London earlier in the week.

Consultants coin it
Also the MoJ’s spending on consultants more than doubled last year. The figures were published in response to a parliamentary question by Labour’s Peter Dowd MP. They show that in 2018 the ministry spent £35.6m on consultants. The previous year’s total was £15.4m, itself up from £7.2m in 2016.


About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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