Legal Aid Agency rules mean our hard-fought plans to end East Anglia’s advice desert might run into the sand, says Audrey Ludwig
It has been a busy and exciting few months at the helm of the UK’s youngest law centre.
Our plans to give the people of Suffolk access to a wide range of legal advice and support are well underway. With the help of farsighted funders, like The Legal Education Foundation, AB Trust, and Access to Justice Foundation, we launched Suffolk Law Centre on 23 March this year. For me and many others, it was the culmination of a six-year journey, and the launch party, attended by almost 100 people, was quite emotional. We even celebrated with a Suffolk Law Centre cake, baked by my colleague Sue Wardell.
Access to justice for the people of Suffolk felt within closer reach than it had done in many years.
Since our official launch, we have continued to make great strides, thanks to the support we enjoy from our local legal community and local people. We have launched the Suffolk Family Law Support Helpdesk (funded by the Litigant in Person Support Strategy). We have doubled our number of volunteer immigration advisors, from two to four. We are hearing daily from lawyers and law students keen to help out. We are developing a model for taking advice to the farthest-flung villages and towns of our rural county. We have recruited a practice manager to oversee quality, data protection, and the reorganisation of our office, including creating confidential and accessible interview space. Our new Mayor of Ipswich, Jane Riley, a partner at Kerseys Solicitors in Ipswich, made us her charity of the year under the theme of “making a difference”. We continue to help increasing numbers of clients in our main building and our various clinics.
From the outset, a key plank in our plans was to recruit a legal aid housing lawyer. There has been no housing lawyer in Suffolk for over five years, despite legal aid still being available if the threat of eviction is imminent, or disrepair is causing risk to health. For too long, local people facing a housing crisis have had to seek help from practitioners miles away in Norfolk and Essex, who are often swamped with their own work, and unable to take on Suffolk cases.
We fundraised for a year’s salary for the housing post up front, as legal aid is notorious for slow payment, and cash flow is a major consideration. Suffolk is a lovely county, cheaper to live in than practically anywhere else just over an hour from London, but we made sure the salary was compatible with other regional law centres. It is an excellent job. The role allows for developing the housing advice service, establishing relationships with the voluntary and community sector, as well as housing associations and local authorities. We are a happy, well established team of enthusiastic staff and volunteers, working closely with our founder charity Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality.
Suitably fired up, we applied for a legal aid housing contract – which we were duly awarded.
There was a catch, however. The LAA contract is contingent on our being able to recruit a self-supervising housing lawyer. We can only recruit someone with recent, relevant experience, as prescribed by the agency: at least three years’ relevant experience in housing law (with enough hours of casework in each year), and they must also have completed a defined selection of case types.
This is where our plans are in danger of running into the ground.
After spending over £800 on advertising the post through a range of media outlets, including the national Law Society Gazette, we have received not one application.
I am starting to believe there may be a real crisis developing in terms of the availability of suitably qualified legal aid supervisors. Unfortunately the legal aid contract doesn’t offer any flexibility – its terms are quite rigid. We can’t even look for one on a part time basis as the legal aid contract requires that they be employed full-time, regardless of how much legal aid work we actually do. It seems that the LAA’s own rules may well stop us from helping them to address the historical advice desert in East Anglia.
We continue to advertise the post. I still believe it would be an ideal job for someone who fancies working with an incredible team and being based near the beautiful fields of Suffolk. If you fit the bill, do send us your CV. Our current recruitment round ends 10 June. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Finally, some much needed housing law advice in Suffolk - 3rd September 2018
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- We have no public lawyers within a 50-mile radius, and it shows in the quality of local decision-making - 21st April 2016