Across England and Wales there are some 50 law centres which are registered with the Law Centres Network. Each centre must comply with a set of minimum requirements, which includes employing at least two lawyers, although some centres employ over 20 lawyers.
Each law centre is accountable to a local committee of trustees elected at their AGM. The committee is responsible for the overall direction of the law centre, determining its priorities to reflect local need and appointing and managing the staff.
Law centres’ services are aimed at the vulnerable and powerless sections of the community such as asylum seekers or homeless people. As well as individual legal casework, law centres carry out social policy work to influence national and local government policy and, in many cases, public legal education work to inform locals of their rights.
All law centres employ qualified lawyers as well as paralegals. Some law centres also employ administration staff or development workers. Some law centres also use volunteers to help with case work but they are closely supervised by the paid staff. A number of law centres have evening clinics staffed by lawyers providing pro bono assistance although supervised by a law centre lawyer.
Many law centres have relationships with law schools and may have law students assisting in the work. One law centre even uses social work students to assist with the non-legal problems.
Specialist free legal assistance, from legal advice to representation at the highest courts, is provided for people without the means to pay or with special needs. It is given in a range of social welfare law categories (housing and homelessness, employment, immigration and asylum, welfare benefits, community care, discrimination, mental health, debt or family law). Not all law centres provide legal assistance in all categories as their services are usually determined by local need, taking into account other local sources of advice, and what funding is available.
Law centres also undertake public legal education to inform local people of their rights and assist them to address their own problems early.
Nationally law centres work together to develop solutions to underlying problems, including a recent project improving the way local authorities handle homeless young people.
How law centres are funded
The funding profile of law centres changed dramatically in 2013/2104 due to major cuts to British legal aid. Previously, on average, law centres received 40% funding from legal aid contracts, 40% from Local Authorities (eg, Birmingham City Council, as local authorities have responsibility for health, education and housing among other areas), and 20% from charitable sources. All law centres will have multiple sources of funding if they are to be sustainable. Those reliant almost entirely on legal aid are struggling to be sustainable at present.
Most law centres are now funded by:
- contracts with the Legal Aid Agency. Since major cuts last year to legal aid for civil law this funding has significantly reduced. While there are still contracts, the value of those is at about 15% of previous value;
- funding from local authorities and charitable trusts;
- fund-raising efforts (eg, sponsored activities and some new charges for services in areas that are out of the scope of legal aid now, an example being immigration);
- some law centres receive funding from local health services for providing advice to patients;
- mental health trusts, housing associations. Since the cuts to legal aid, law centres are testing new initiatives and partnerships with other charities or organisations to maximise the availability of free legal assistance; and
- partnerships with other community organisations to help resolve the non-legal aspects of the person’s problems which can lead to joint funding from a number of agencies depending on the area.
Current challenges facing law centres
Law Centres Network director Julie Bishop says: “The biggest challenge facing law centres is the current austerity climate in the UK with a government that has little commitment to the principle of equality before the law. As well as massive cuts to legal aid, people’s rights have been eroded in other ways such as by introducing fees for Employment Tribunal appeals and major welfare reforms along with cuts to welfare benefits. Law centres therefore have to meet the needs of more people but with fewer resources.”
There are some 200 community legal centres across Australia, most connected via the National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC).
Community legal centres (CLCs) can offer specialist legal services in areas such as child support, credit and debt, environmental law, welfare rights, mental health, disability discrimination, tenancy, immigration, employment, and the arts among others. Other CLCs provide services targeted to particular groups including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, children and young people, women, older people, refugees, prisoners and the homeless.
Overview of CLCs
CLCs are located throughout Australia in urban, regional and the more remote locations. Their aim is to offer effective and targeted solutions to legal problems for individual clients.
CLCs also work beyond individual clients by community development, community legal education, capacity building and law and policy reform projects which are based on needs.
The clients of CLCs are those who face economic, social or cultural disadvantage, are often experiencing multiple inter-related problems, and frequently their legal problem may affect their and their family’s entire life circumstances.
In its 2012/2013 annual report the NACLC stated that 57% of work undertaken by most CLCs was in civil law with the majority of problems focusing around tenancy and credit and debt issues. In family law (35%) around one third of the problem types revolve around contact and residency. Criminal law (8%) issues dealt with by CLCs were mainly around offences against property.
In the 2012/2013 year, CLCs assisted 211,896 clients, provided advice 248,970 times, had a total of 76,142 active cases and closed 51,220 cases.
The NACLC has been active with its centres in providing federal and state law submissions and becoming involved in the Knowmore Legal Service which offers free legal advice and assistance to people who are engaging (or considering engaging) with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
How CLCs are funded
Some CLCs receive no or very little funding and are largely or entirely staffed by volunteers.
Other CLCs receive funds from a variety of sources, including state and federal governments and philanthropic organisations. CLCs are committed to collaborating and working in partnership wherever possible, with government, legal aid and other publicly funded legal assistance service providers, pro bono contributors, the private legal profession, community services agencies and other community partners to ensure the best outcomes for their clients and prevent social exclusion.
Last year the Federal Government announced cuts of $43.1 million over four years across four legal assistance services, including $19.6 million from the CLC sector and $13.41 million from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Legal Services. NACLC also expected cuts to other free legal services.
“At a time of increasing demand for quality legal help for people in need, the government’s race to put its budget back into surplus will have huge social and economic costs that will far outweigh the savings made by cutting $43.1 million from legal assistance services,” NACLC convenor Michael Smith said of the cuts.
Information from the Law Centres Network and the National Association of Community Legal Centres.