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Hope for access to justice?

Against a backdrop of cuts and closures, the Greater Manchester Law Centre opened its doors last year - an inspiration for grass-roots community organising. This is their story.

The Greater Manchester Law Centre is not just a law centre but a campaign for justice. Photo by GMLC.

People are facing greater and greater hardship as a result of cuts in benefits, homelessness, uncertainty at work and escalating racism. Ken Loach's "I Daniel Blake" paints this picture of Britain today.

Meanwhile, legal aid - an essential part of the justice system - has been cut again and again. And people facing the problems above are least able to pay for a lawyer, even if they can find one. The people most in need are most deprived of access to justice. 

Younger people cannot easily become social welfare lawyers when overwhelmed by student debt - with fewer job opportunities even for those who might want to work in legal aid. 

Greater Manchester Law Centre exists to challenge all this. 

We had no funds. We had no premises. But we had the commitment of people who share our view - that free, independent, high quality advice is crucial.  

Across the ten districts of the county of Greater Manchester there used to be nine law centres. Following government and council cuts just two are left (Bury and Rochdale in the north). We said that the downward spiral cannot be allowed to continue. We declared publicly "With your help there WILL be a law centre for Greater Manchester".

There IS now.

We had no funds. We had no premises. But we had the commitment of people who share our view - that free, independent, high quality advice is crucial for those in need - and who were prepared to put their own time and money towards it. 

We created an email list. We established a Steering Group (including lawyers, voluntary sector managers, trade unionists). We agreed that we needed a Constitution. We wrote a Business Plan and sought start-up funding. 

There were of course huge obstacles. Greater Manchester (which isn't just "Manchester") is an area which is disproportionately poor. Child poverty rates are among the highest in the country. And Greater Manchester has become the flagship for a form of "devolution" - joining the 10 councils to the local NHS, delegating an estimated £2billion health shortfall to the already cash-strapped local authorities. There are well-researched positive health outcomes from providing people with high quality legal advice, but there isn't so much clear money to pay for it through this "GM" cropping.

Not everywhere has to contend with this particular mix. But our stand against cuts and closures may encourage others and, if we can do it against these odds, then....

People started coming in with plastic bags of documents, desperate for anyone who could listen to their problems, before we were even open.

What exactly did we do? First there was the "inextricable circle" - without services, you don't get funding. Without funding, you can't get premises. Without premises, there aren't any services. The trick is to do it all at once. Its like telling A that B will fund you and telling B that C will fund you and then going back to C with the support of A and B. And we did it!

Second we wanted to develop one particular service. Without a supervising solicitor, insurance, advice manuals or even a computer, it is difficult. Volunteer advisers may not be available during working hours. So we advertised, found part-time and retired advisers, trained them, and got a local solicitor's firm to take on supervision. 

Third we had to beg a building, and furniture to go in it, and manage it. This can take over everything else. You can forget you are trying to deliver services (never mind advocating more generally) because you have to overcome the obstacles of utility suppliers and their competition companies all trying to sell the same service, alarms, intercoms, security, lift, water, refuse, sanitary, cleaning... You also need to find, induct, train and manage office volunteers, who can no only open the door but help give general information and direction to anyone calling. People started coming in with plastic bags of documents, desperate for anyone who could listen to their problems, before we were even open. Referrals to us have varied widely - the police sent someone to us because they had lost their coat.

Fourth we had to manage an organisation. There has been a huge commitment by a few volunteer managers, several of us trying to maintain full time legal aid practice at the same time. But if you say you want to do it, you can. We have sought out sessional solicitors, applied for funding (successfully gaining a Supervising Solicitor post for 3 years and a Development Manager for 18 months), and attracted over 500 supporters to our email list, including over 50 "core" volunteer advisers, fund-raisers, office volunteers.

The local newsagent will not let us pay for milk when we go into the shop, and the Nubian coffee shop delivers us patties and drinks. 

Fifth, we have sought sustainability. By using pro bono barristers and solicitors, using students and volunteers, we intend to support the advice we give without needing to rely on the restrictive nature of declining state contracts. Volunteers are the backbone of the law centre. We will only sustain it through individual and community efforts of people doing it for ourselves.

Crucially we needed community support. We held two local public meetings in Moss Side before we moved in to see if people were in favour. They were. Unanimously. The local newsagent will not let us pay for milk when we go into the shop, and the Nubian coffee shop delivers us patties and drinks.

There were over 500 people who attended our Opening Event on 11 February 2017 - held at the nearby West Indian Sports and Social Centre, after a short march with banner and placards from the centre itself, where our "Patrons" Robert Lizar (long time legal aid lawyer in Moss Side) and Erinma Bell (community activist and prominent justice campaigner) cut the ribbon - of "No Access to Justice" - by declaring that there WILL be access to justice, here, because we say there will. 

We are not just a law centre, but a campaign for law centres, access to the legal system, and for justice

Following this, the gathering heard from Michael Mansfield, who called for more community-led law centres, and Maxine Peake (our very own north-west lawyer as seen on TV), while the Holy Name primary school entertained us with their steel band and the choir of WAST (Women Asylum Seekers Together) called for freedom and justice for all. 

We are not just a law centre, but a campaign for law centres, access to the legal system, and for justiceWe aren't providing a bit of service delivery, important though that is, on the lines of foodbanks - we are a campaign for properly funded legal aid. We want that new generation of publicly funded, social welfare lawyers: that is why we have set up a Legal Academic Services Board of the five local university law departments/colleges whose students will be volunteering with us and representing appellants at the Tribunal - a scheme following the Avon and Bristol Law Centre, who, as with other law centres, have been very helpful in guiding our development. And of course we aren't just looking for pro bono lawyer support, vital though that is at present, to keep open the channel to legal aid, but also we want their structural and long term financial commitment. Our Lawyer Fund Generation Scheme calls on all lawyers in private practice in Greater Manchester to give us 0.5% of their salary - and to get their own firms to do likewise. We aim to be around for a long time to come. 

If you are interested in supporting the GMLC email info@gmlaw.org.uk and see www.gmlaw.org.uk.


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