Sheffield Law Centre: determined to continue in spite of cuts

image004As part of a new fortnightly series on LegalVoice, Mary-Rachel McCabe profiles Sheffield Law Centre.

What does Sheffield Law Centre (SLC) do?
Sheffield Law Centre is a not-for-profit provider in Sheffield which delivers free legal advice and representation to local people. It specialises in housing, discrimination, employment and public law. Until recently it also delivered a service in asylum and immigration law. The law centre was established in 1984 and is run by a management committee of local people as well as using local people as volunteers. It prides itself on providing an independent, high quality and easily accessible service targeting those who are most vulnerable or unable to get help elsewhere.

How many staff does SLC have and how many volunteers?
The law centre has a housing team of three workers, an employment specialist and discrimination/public law specialist. There has been a substantial reduction of staff over the past few months because of LASPO and the decision to close the immigration team, and at the end of the year the law centre will have only seven members of staff remaining – including support staff (at one point it had 18). At present the law centre has six regular volunteers.

What responsibilities do volunteers have at SLC?
Two volunteers at the law centre are ex-employees who have finished their employment in the last year and who now volunteer because of their commitment to the law centre and its work – one is an employment law caseworker and one is an admin worker. Other volunteers help with administrative tasks in order to free the caseworkers up to do casework. The main tasks that they undertake in the law centre are reception duties, signposting enquirers, data input, management of printed resources, photocopying and general admin.

How is SLC funded?
Since the beginning of April 2013 the law centre is funded almost entirely by earned income (although there is a small grant from the Big Lottery’s Awards for All programme). The vast majority of the income comes from legal aid including contracts and certificates but the law centre has had to look hard at other income generation opportunities to make up for the shortfall caused by the withdrawal of grant funding and LASPO. It has recently started doing conditional fee arrangements in employment law to meet a gap in the market following the withdrawal of legal aid. These are targeted at clients with lower value claims.

How many cases a year does SLC conduct under legal aid?
In 2011/12 – 561
In 2013/14 (year to date) – 156

What types of cases are they?
Housing, public law and some asylum this year. Loss of contracts in employment, immigration and consumer (discrimination) as well as a reduction in type of housing work because of legal aid scope changes

What have the highlights of the last twelve months been?
The law centre was pleased to open two new housing offices and two new asylum offices in April from which to deliver legal aid. These were run in partnership with neighbourhood advice centres in the city that provided the permanent presence and reception services needed and could also link clients with other services in the city for their needs and thus provide a more holistic service for the clients. Following the streamlining of the law centre’s services to meet financial constraints this year, the law centre retains only one of these other offices but the joint working was productive and may spin off into other projects.

Sheffield City Council has been providing core funding for a number of advice agencies in the city for several years including the law centre. It made the decision in 2012/13 that it would cease funding individual agencies and fund only one large not-for-profit advice agency, which it required to be a CAB. Agreement was reached with the council that the service delivery for this organisation would be co-designed with them but that as well as being a CAB it would also be a law centre. The organisation has now been created and will be known as Sheffield Citizens Advice and Law Centre. Eleven agencies have merged together already, and the law centre will join on 1 January 2014.  This merger represents good joint working by a large number of agencies in the city and is in receipt of a grant from Sheffield city council. With the merger of the law centre it will cover many areas of law, deal with a number of minority groups and deliver advice at all levels.

What impact (if any) has LASPO had on SLC?
The scope changes in legal aid have greatly reduced the work that the law centre can do. It might have been possible to continue delivering services, albeit at a reduced level, but the loss of funding from Sheffield city council and the lack of other opportunities meant that Sheffield Law Centre was looking unsustainable in the long run. The decision was made to cease immigration and asylum work to save costs in the short-term and then to merge with other agencies to ensure the survival of services in the long term.

What is the future for SLC if the government goes ahead with its planned further cuts to legal aid?
A law centre will be retained in Sheffield thanks to the work done to merge with other agencies. Obviously, the amount of legal aid work done will decline significantly but the work and the values of the law centre will continue although not in the same form.

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