We are on the cusp of what we consider a law centre revolution. Serving a deprived but vibrant community in East London for almost 40 years, Hackney Community Law Centre has been considered part of Hackney’s furniture, writes Ian Rathbone. Now every day, however, we are confronted by the prospect of our demise and very survival.
To understand the kind of conditions that we work under, here are some figures:
- Hackney has the second highest rate of child poverty in London, using the ‘Income Affecting Children Index’ (IDACI), after Tower Hamlets, the borough next door;
- Over two-thirds of overcrowded households in the borough contain children;
- A significant number of wards contain four or more Super Output Areas (SOAs) or the 5% most deprived SOAs in England; and
- The borough is home to a high proportion of asylum seekers and refugees.
Official data (collected by our ‘advicepro’ case recording system) over the last year reveals that we have taken on 52% more cases than last year in housing, welfare benefits and debt. This trend is growing ever upwards and with the changes to legal aid due to come into force from April 2013, our manager, Sean Canning, believes the number of vulnerable and desperate people seeking our help will only rise further.
So we have decided to fight back by raising our profile in the community – ‘popularising the concept of the Law Centre,’ says Sean. Funded by the London Legal Support Trust, a charity that supports Law Centres along with some funding received from the London Borough of Hackney, we have appointed a development worker, Miranda Grell, to do the things that our hard-pressed solicitors and caseworkers do not have time to do – lobby the great and good, run fundraising campaigns, reach out to potential new supporters on Twitter etc – and the plan the staff are most excited about – to launch ‘Community Law Shops’, taking our services out to visible places in the community such as libraries and local further education colleges.
Initiatives such the Community Law Shops are vital to our survival. Such is the interest in the idea that some of the Law Centre’s new patrons, such as high profile human rights solicitor Louise Christian, have offered to volunteer at the Law Shops’ advice giving sessions.
But despite the seemingly new ways of doing things, the reason why Hackney Community Law Centre wants to keep going is very old. Every day, for the past three decades, many confused, scared and desperate people walk through our doors. One of them was Kate, a 53 year old former carer to her seriously disabled son. Kate and her son had lived together for 10 years in a specially adapted flat. However, after her son was subsequently moved into long term residential care, Kate found herself thrown out on the streets, being told that when she and her son had moved to the property someone at the council had placed the tenancy in his name rather than hers.
On a cold autumn afternoon, after having slept rough for two nights, eating discarded fruit from the bins of the local Tesco, Kate somehow found her way to Hackney Community Law Centre. There, assisted by one of the law centre’s volunteers, she was able to secure a bed in a hostel for the night and Nathaniel Mathews, one of our senior housing solicitors, took on her case. “It was a clear case of maladministration,’ says Nathaniel. ‘Kate’s son clearly did not have the mental capacity under the 2005 Act to hold a tenancy. But the legal ins and out meant nothing to Kate. All she wanted was to have a warm bed to sleep in again and a roof over her head for that night”.
After two months of the Law Centre’s involvement in Kate’s case, Hackney Council accepted a duty to house her under the Housing Act 1996 and she is now being considered for permanent accommodation.
Volunteers and interns, such as the volunteer who first saw Kate, are integral to the work we can take on. With such scant resources, the centre relies on a volunteer army of selfless local residents and interested students to help keep things going.
Our staff are not altogether comfortable about this. With a history as a ‘collective’ and a strong commitment to equality and social justice issues, the centre’s caseworkers and solicitors abhor all forms of exploitation and also feel that if they cannot afford to pay volunteers and interns properly then only those with independent wealth will be able to benefit from picking up the vital legal skills and experiences that the centre offers.
It is a perennial problem in the current legal profession and Hackney Community Law Centre’s solicitors fear that a potential new generation of committed legal aid lawyers will lose interest in working in law centres altogether, choosing to go into our better paid areas of law in private practice instead.
So in 2012, nearly 40 years after Hackney Community Law Centre first opened its doors we feel as if it’s a little like ‘back to the future’. Though our ways of working may have to change, our raison d’etre remains the same and just as the first law centres created waves in the legal establishment when they first opened so Hackney Community Law Centre now hopes to do the same all over again. Despite these depressing times for the law centre movement, we believe we are on the cusp of a law centre revolution.
This article first appeared on ‘Legal Voice‘, the website for professionals committed to access to justice.