The will to survive

Miranda GrellDespite losing all its funding, Haringey Law Centre has managed to keep its doors open, says new recruit Miranda Grell

All law centres learn to live with financial uncertainty but Haringey Law Centre has faced more funding difficulties than most. Between May and December 2016, the centre in north London had no income whatsoever. Prior to May, it had received a local authority grant, but in spring last year, the law centre became one of many voluntary agencies in the north London borough of Haringey not to be recommissioned. The local Age UK closed as a result.

There is no doubt that Haringey Law Centre would have also closed were it not for the staggering commitment of some of its staff and volunteers. Despite no longer receiving a salary the likes of manager Victor, debt worker Kwaku and others, have stayed on to try to keep the service going. Haringey Law Centre is no longer able to open five days a week. However, from the constant stream of local people still turning up and non-stop referrals from Citizens Advice, its services are still clearly needed.

The centre faces the major challenge of finding new funding to keep the housing, welfare benefits, employment, immigration and debt advice services going, and has already had some success. In December 2016, the City of London Solicitors’ Company delivered a touching Christmas gift by agreeing to fund its debt advice post for the next three years. So far, so good and we hope that in 2017 we’ll start as we mean to go on.

I joined Haringey Law Centre in November 2016, having spent five years at Hackney Community Law Centre. I now divide my time between the two, and have been able to identify non-funding related challenges and experiences that are common to both. Both centres often have to contend with a lack of understanding of what a law centre is and does.

In Haringey, there was a perception within the local authority that its work could just as easily be done by Citizens Advice. Those who understand what law centres actually do know that’s just not true. Law centres are providers of specialist legal advice and their lawyers have rights of audience in the county courts, all the way up to the UK Supreme Court. Citizens Advice is a wonderful generalist advice service, but it cannot satisfy the growing local and national demand for free and independent specialist legal advice. Working with my new Haringey colleagues, that’s the message I hope to begin getting across to political and strategic decision-makers in the borough.

Another shared Hackney/Haringey Law Centre experience is the absolutely critical role played by law centre trustees. As a law firm which is also a charity, a law centre rises and falls with those responsible for its governance. If the accounts are not filed on time or the annual general meeting not held, the law centre’s existence is in peril.

In Haringey, due to the fact that so many staff have had to leave, the trustees go above and beyond the call of duty. Martha, its chair, visits the centre regularly to attend to trustee business but also to book in local residents for employment law appointments with a retired barrister.

Martha phones all the people who contact the centre about issues such as unfair dismissal or unpaid wages. She then painstakingly conducts interviews before passing the case on to the visiting volunteer barrister. I have also seen Martha sitting with many distressed local people who’ve just turned up at the door, making them strong cups of tea, and listening to their problems – not all legal. Haringey Law Centre desperately needs more Marthas, so some of the pressure can be taken off this one. Helping the centre to recruit more committed trustees is high on my to-do list.

A further shared experience I have observed from my time at both Hackney and Haringey is that both law centres have stayed true to their founding principles – to champion social justice and access to justice, alongside providing a high-quality free and independent legal service. Though Hackney is further along the road in terms of thinking aboutmodern’ ways to deliver legal advice, I witness the same burning desire in both centres to use the power of the law to help deprived and marginalised people.

About Miranda Grell

Miranda Grell works at Hackney Community Law Centre and Haringey Law Centre as a development officer. She was the 2014 recipient of the Law Centres Network Reita Clarke Memorial Award

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