Sue James was an early member of the (not so) Lonely Litigator’s Club.  Following comments made about law centres yesterday I  invited Sue to write a guest post on the role of  law centres, generally and during the pandemic.  Sue still has copies of the guidance  we produced – a while back – to students working at a university law centre.


“I don’t think many people know that @CivilLitTweet worked in a law centre when civil litigation wasn’t even the beginning of a twinkle in his blue eyes. For lawyers who have stepped across the threshold of a law centre, whether they stay indefinitely, like me, or move on, it can be life changing – and for the clients too.
Gordon and I were at university together. Warwick University. It was powerful and progressive. We had strikes and demonstrations outside the classroom but inside I learnt that law could be used as a tool for social change – and that’s what I wanted to do – make change. I had been inspired by the radical lawyers of the 70’s, the developing law around equal pay, sex discrimination and tenants’ rights. I wanted to be a solicitor in a law centre. And when Peter Kandler set up the first UK law centre in 1970 that’s what he wanted to do too. He wanted to bring law and justice to everyday people. Peter had learned his politics while playing Chess with EP Thompson in the basement café, the Partizan in Soho. That was 50 years ago.
Peter Kandler, now in his 80’s, is still involved with North Kensington Law Centre. He told me, when we met last year, for my LAG column, At the bar (out in July – so if you don’t already subscribe to the magazine, then do) that the idea was to have a law centre on every high street, like a chemist or a chip shop. We haven’t got there yet, but the announcement of the funding by central government is very welcome, and a recognition of the value of law centres.
Funding isn’t easy for law centres; the public don’t seem to like lawyers and the government doesn’t seem to like legal aid. So, we are caught somewhere between a rock and a hard place – as they say. We don’t just do legal aid work though. We rely on grant funding to cover areas of advice out of scope, but this is in small cycles of one to three years and usually attached to specific outcomes. It is hard – but what we do have is a wealth of talent, knowledge, commitment, determination, resilience, creativity, resourcefulness and empathy -we sit, listen and stand alongside our clients throughout their case. My law centre colleagues are also a lot of fun.
Law centre lawyers (and yes, we are mainly lawyers) have witnessed the devastating effects of austerity on our clients over the last ten years. We know that structural inequality lies at the heart of many social welfare law cases – and we know what is needed to make change.  We practice holistic advice, as much as the funding allows, so that we can help the person and not the individual problem. Most people have more than one problem, funding in silos doesn’t work to make real change. Most housing cases have a welfare benefit problem at the centre – but welfare benefits went out of scope for legal aid in 2013 with LASPO. The hidden costs of this cut to legal aid is that welfare benefit cases end up being rent arrears cases. We need to invest more in prevention and extend the scope of legal aid.
Just last year I travelled around Australia and Canada looking at alternative legal provision. I was successful in my application for a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. The trust was set up after he died, to put into practice one of his lesser known motto’s: travel to learn, return to inspire.  My fellowship focused on health justice partnerships and other multi-disciplinary practices. I spent six weeks meeting amazing lawyers from many diverse organisations who are providing holistic, multi-disciplinary advice (now isn’t the place for detail – but if you want to know more, then happy to talk it through and send a copy of my report). This is needed in the UK – but law centres need long term sustainable funding to do it.
CivilLitTweet invited me as guest blogger and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk, at least a little, about law centres. I have worked in one pretty much my whole career – with just a few years at Bindman & Partners, so, I am a little biased, of course. Because, not only do I get to work in a simply brilliant one, in Hammersmith and Fulham, but I also helped to set one up in Ealing, just seven years ago, at the same time that LASPO commenced. In Ealing, we started with a grant from Bob Nightingale, at the London Legal Support Trust, of just £5,000 and now have a turnover of over £250,000 and ten amazing staff. In north Wales – an advice desert on a spectacular scale – I’m part of a small steering group that is currently setting up there. It will be the first law centre in this area.
But not everyone will have worked in a law centre or even been to one, many don’t know what we do, and I think it is in that context that the Bar Council issued its statement that was challenged by Miranda Grell on Twitter. Since then there have been two revisions from the Bar Council. The comments may have been poorly thought through initially, but now we have an opportunity to talk about what law centres do. Miranda understands this more than most, as she spent seven years working at Hackney Law Centre. I interviewed her for my At the bar [1]column in July 2019, where she described her time at the law centre as, ‘the most wonderful place, with the most compassionate wonderful people’. A job as a law centre solicitor isn’t just a job – it’s a political choice.
I thought I would dig out my Warwick University Neighbourhood Law Centre (NLC) Counsellor’s Handbook from my old university papers for this blog, as @CivilLitTweet was one – of two – chairmen on the NLC. I’m impressed when I read inside, that back in the 80’s, we had written: Law centres play a vital part in the provision of legal services by giving free advice to clients who may not be able to afford the services of a solicitor. Nothing has changed since then.
The pandemic has impacted disproportionately on those most in need, just as the effects of ten years of austerity have. Social justice lawyers will be needed more than ever to assist with rent and mortgage arrears, welfare benefit problems, employment disputes and discrimination, domestic violence and family matters. It’s right that we are funded to do so.
Sue James