'What will people like me do?' Clients react to shock cuts to Hackney Community Law Centre
PUBLISHED: 13:41 11 April 2019 | UPDATED: 09:30 16 April 2019
"The funding cuts are not good. If the immigration service has to close then what about somebody in the same situation as me? What will that person do?"
“The funding cuts are not good. If the immigration service has to close then what about somebody in the same situation as me? What will that person do?”
Mary, 45, would have lost her home and her legal rights to be in the UK if it weren't for Hackney Community Law Centre, which was set up 40 years ago and provides free advice and representation to low-income people in the borough.
Now, with a 45 per cent cut to the funding awarded by Hackney Council, it is in danger of closing. Over the next two years it will receive £115,000, down from £203,000, bringing the total cuts to £148,340 since 2017.
Initially, the Lower Clapton Road centre faces having to close its immigration and benefits departments, just as Brexit and Universal Credit increase their need. Its only funding comes from the council and the Legal Aid Agency, but this year the council says it needs to spread its cash around a more diverse range of groups to deal with the growing complexity of people's problems.
Mary's case wouldn't be covered by legal aid, so it's a perfect example of where the council funding goes. She was referred to the law centre by the Hackney Migrant Centre after losing her job and finding herself with spiralling debts and three children to look after.
“I couldn't afford to pay my rent and it was piling up,” she told the Gazette. “I was finding it difficult to survive, then the migrant centre sent me to them. I was told I had no recourse to public funds and they looked into my immigration status.
“What happened was when I applied for my status three years ago the Home Office didn't check all my documents. Kevin [Long, housing solicitor at the centre] looked through them and realised it was their mistake. It was there – they just missed it. Last week I received a letter saying I was successful. I nearly lost my home. I have three children.”
In the last few years the law centre has won innovation awards for its pop-up clinics at Hackney and Dalston's CLR James libraries. It also takes referrals from other organisations like the migrant centre, the Citizens Advice Bureau and Shelter.
A dozen or so people are based there, and a large chunk of the work is done pro bono. There are two qualified housing lawyers, two trainee solicitors, three paralegals and a handful of volunteers. For immigration cases, there is one solicitor, and very little of the work is covered by legal aid. For employment cases, there is another solicitor, who also works pro bono, handling welfare and benefits. Other cases that aren't covered by legal aid are housing benefit cases, and most housing disrepair.
John Angus Hutchinson, 57, needed help last summer when Newlon Housing wanted to take him to court over upkeep of his Elderfield Road home. The injunction was thrown out after the centre managed to secure exceptional case funding from the Legal Aid Agency, but it had already done work before the cash was approved.
“They were being quite heavy handed and I was feeling vulnerable,” John said. “But they resolved it. It's outrageous the funding has been cut. I wouldn't have been able to get help and would have been steamrollered.”
The centre has also done its bit for victims of the Windrush scandal. Delbert Myrie Clarke, of Essex, like many others was not given any documents proving his citizenship when he arrived in the UK as a 13-year-old in July 1969. Last year the centre helped him challenge the Home Office.
It also helped Julius Holgate, who was deemed capable of climbing stars and therefore fit to work by the Department for Work and Pensions, despite having no legs. After the law centre got involved the DWP discovered its staff had “ticked the wrong box”.
Jeremy Ogilvie-Harris, 25, has been volunteering at the centre for more than two years. He said: “We had a team meeting on Friday and said we need to think about what we can do to stop it closing. Many of our clients are vulnerable. I've helped someone with lupus, people who have extreme depression and anxiety, victims of torture. There are a lot of people who need help and can't access a lawyer. It's hugely important we can offer those services.”
More people in Hackney are now migrating to the digital-only Universal Credit system, so cases are expected to pile up. Jeremy added: “I understand what the council is doing – and, yes, support in other areas is really important. But so is legally protecting people. If they have all the support in the world but their landlord is evicting them, it's not great.”
What is a law centre?
Law Centres began popping up in the UK in the 1970s, inspired by the American civil rights movement and the model of the “neighbourhood law office” – a local hub, mostly in disadvantaged areas, for those who needed it most but could least afford it.
The first was North Kensington Law Centre, set up in a converted butcher's shop, which has recently supported the community following the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Law Centres are charities. They employ lawyers who specialise in social welfare law – including among others welfare rights, housing, social care, employment and immigration – and also attract volunteer lawyers and law students.
As charities, they are governed by trustees drawn from their local community.
While each centre is local, the movement comes together through a national body, the Law Centres Network (LCN), which has been operating since 1978.
At its largest, in the mid-2000s, the LCN had 63 members. Several have had to shut due to funding cuts, especially the £1bn legal aid cuts in 2013.
But new law centres are still launching, and there are now 41 in the UK.