A young man in mustard khakis, a black body warmer and formal shirt walks into the office clutching a large red plastic bag bulging with paper. He perches lightly on the edge of a chair and begins to speak. Habib Ullah, a softly-spoken solicitor wearing a grey kameez and embroidered cap, sits opposite him listening.
The young man, who is 29 and married with a 5-year-old child, starts to pull sheets of paper from his tattered bag; a letter from the council stopping housing benefit; a letter from the Department for Work & Pensions transferring him from Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA); a letter from Jobcentre Plus informing him that there was doubt about his claim and so his allowance had been stopped; credit card statements with £300 of debt; gas and electricity bills.
Habib sets about unravelling the paper trail and attempts to piece the man’s life together. The DWP informed the council that the young man was no longer in receipt of ESA, but neglected to add that he would be on JSA instead. The council assumed that the young man had secured full time work and would no longer need housing benefit. While Habib writes a letter to correct the situation, the man reveals that he was ill and missed a CV clinic and this was why his JSA has been stopped. Habib examines the letter: it expresses “doubt” about the young man’s claim, a final decision about the sanction is yet to be made. They will have to wait for a final decision and then appeal it. In the meantime, the Jobcentre has stopped paying him the allowance. The young man is still perched and looks uncertain. Habib turns to him: so, what have you got to live on?
More papers from the plastic bag. The family receives £62.89 a week in child tax credit and £82 a month in child benefit. The credit cards cover food, but they are behind on the heating bills. A new revelation: the young man has a mortgage, which he has fallen behind on since losing his job. He is worried about losing his home. Habib nods, his demeanour unchanged, and turns to print a hardship form. If the application for hardship payments succeeds the young man and his family will receive support of £80 a week. In the meantime, Habib tells him to come back when the Jobcentre sends a letter confirming his sanction.
The young man pushes his papers back into the bag, shakes Habib’s hand and leaves the office. Habib follows him out to the packed waiting room. People have been queuing since 9.30am, the centre’s drop-in session opens twice a week from 10-1pm. Habib is followed back to his office by a lady in a floor length black tunic with sequined sleeves and a cream head scarf trimmed with black ribbon. Her brow is furrowed and she carries a plastic bag full of loose sheets of papers.
Habib and his law centre colleague Michael Bates are well-known in Sparkbrook, a lively inner-city village in south-east Birmingham, where the need for their service is great. It is the second poorest ward in the city with unemployment at 18.8% and average household incomes below £20,000. Habib has helped people with debt and benefit problems for 14 years; first as a volunteer, then as a paid case worker. He began practicing as a solicitor in 2008 after a former manager encouraged him to study a law degree and complete the Legal Practitioners Course.
Residents in Sparkbrook have been particularly hit by the cuts to public services and social welfare reform, which many rely on to top up low wages. People are easily made destitute, it only takes one particular cut. It might be the additional charge for empty rooms in social housing (known as the bedroom tax) or the removal of council tax benefit.
“We really need to think about how the changes impact people who are the most vulnerable in our society,” says Habib.
“I have one case – he receives £72 a week Jobseeker’s Allowance. His children aren’t living with him anymore, he has two extra bedrooms. So he has to pay £25 a week towards his rent from the £72. Then all the bills on top of that.”
Then there is the actual process of securing state support. Many low-income jobs are insecure, which means people are frequently in and out of work. The process of seeking social welfare for the in-between times is often slow and can take weeks and months leaving people with little to live on the meantime. “A lot of the problems we deal with are probably caused by bad administration and decision making. If Jobcentre Plus had more staff and more resources then that would cut out a lot of appeals and tribunals hearings so you could save money in the long run.”
On the streets outside Habib’s office, Sparkbrook is quieter than usual. On another day you might see men frying battered vegetables and giant samosas in huge metal bowls, cluttering the pavement outside brightly-displayed sari shops and newsagents. But it is Ramadan, a time of fasting from sunrise to sunset for many Muslims, and so the shutters are down on most of the curry cafes that fill the main high street, though the smells of roasting spices and chargrilled meat persist.
Birmingham Community Centre Law Centre is on a residential street just off this thoroughfare in a large terraced house. The property is owned by the Bangladeshi Centre, a local charity, who once used the building to provide community services until they ran out of funding for this work eight years ago.
It is an ambitious, if precarious, operation, which consists of Habib and Michael providing advice, a part-time legal secretary and a young receptionist fresh from a law degree. Boxes with reams of case work are slowly being unpacked and thick legal handbooks balance on shelves. The office has been running just 10 months, but word has spread quickly and in that time 500 people have been in and out needing help. Michael and Habib, juggle an enormous workload providing welfare benefits, debt, public law and community care advice, and they can only afford to open the office a few days a week. Despite limited time and funds the centre is imbued with optimism and zeal.
Yet this time last year both Michael and Habib faced unemployment and Birmingham faced losing its only community law centre.
Before the opening of their new office in Sparkbrook, both Michael and Habib worked at the old Birmingham Law Centre for 17 and 14 years respectively. That closed abruptly last summer leaving Britain’s second largest city without a community law centre.
Birmingham was one of nine law centres to close since the implementation of the Legal Aid and Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act last April. Many others are on the brink and all have had to reduce their services dramatically.
A combination of things are to blame. The biggest two, say industry insiders, are one, the recent changes to the law which removed employment and debt advice from the scope of legal aid funding and severely restricted it for housing, immigration and welfare benefits. The second reason is more than a decade of reforms and tinkering with legal aid payment structures, which has led to lower fees paid to lawyers for each legal aid case they take on.
For law centres, whose role has traditionally been to provide public law advice to poorer people unable to pay a private solicitor, the changes have been particularly difficult. Much of the government’s welfare reform has been fraught with mistakes and the victims of this are usually those on low incomes. These very people make up the bread and butter work for law centres; their need is growing just as the capacity of law centres to provide advice is being squeezed. The majority of a law centre’s funding will come from local authority grants and legal aid payments from central government, again, both areas with drastically reduced budgets.
Before the old Birmingham Law Centre succumbed to these pressures, its staff of twenty knew what was coming. Michael, a cheerful Birmingham-born man in his early forties, was devastated, not just at losing his job, but also because of the potential disruption to the lives of his clients. “We were seeing 2,000 a people a year,” he says. “And doing full legal aid case work. That old fashioned model of seeing people on an appointment basis, face to face, giving instructions, giving legal advice and offering support in order to progress their case and move it to a satisfactory conclusion. That is how we dealt with every client that came to see us.”
In recent years the centre had advanced successful challenges to the bedroom tax and for migrants’ rights; Michael was part of a legal challenge to the DWP over its decision to deny social security to migrant families with British children who, despite a legal right to remain in Britain, have no access to public funds.
So Michael came up with a plan to save the law centre. “An idea developed in my head, it was bigger than what we have ended up with, to save three, four, five members of staff and come here,” he says gesturing at the Bangladeshi Centre office. “We knew this place was empty, we had got the keys, Habib has been letting himself in for the past 8 years.”
Habib first began providing free advice and legal education in his spare time at the Bangladeshi Centre more than a decade ago. And even when the Centre could no longer fund its own community services, he continued with support from Michael. Clearing out the centre in preparation for their new venture, they came across a dusty notebook: Bangladesh Centre Office Manual written by Michael Bates and Habib Ullah, 2001.
Michael had to act quickly before the old law centre went into liquidation, once that happened existing funding for legal aid cases and any other assets would be lost to creditors. “The idea was to try and transport as much as we could carry down here and see what we could save and what we could keep going.
“I knew that we wouldn’t be able to do that on our own. And Sue at Coventry Law Centre was the first person I thought of contacting.”
It is mile four or five of the Birmingham Legal Walk, but Sue Bent shows little sign of fatigue, instead she is making an impassioned argument against the cuts to legal aid.
The annual 10km walk meanders through Birmingham’s evolving city centre, a hum of building sites, historic landmarks and sparkling new buildings made of glass or metal and shaped like spaceships. Hundreds of lawyers from across the Midlands have turned out, many using the opportunity to voice their opposition to the reforms impacting on both criminal and civil law.
Sue, wearing T-shirt, walking shoes and bright dangly earrings, has convinced most of her team at Coventry Law Centre to “walk for justice”. She has also got Lord Bach, a former government minister and patron of her law centre, involved. Strolling onto one of the city’s canal paths, he nods in agreement as Sue speaks. Both agree that the changes to legal aid funding extend beyond financial repercussions for individual practitioners, the changes pose a fundamental threat to the rule of law.
It is one of many examples of Sue’s ability to galvanise and rally people to her cause and way of thinking. This is that every citizen being able to access legal advice is essential for a socially just society. The role of a law centre, says Sue, should be to help those least able to access that right. “For me there is very little point in passing legislation, in having courts and judiciary if access to those things that protect people is only accessible to part of the population. It is not an equal society.”
Sue took over as director of Coventry Law Centre 10 years ago and during that time developed a distinctive vision of what a law centre should be.
Prior to that she worked as a senior manager in social housing for a local authority. “It took about five years for me to work out what the possibilities of running a law centre offered. It was a very steep learning curve managing solicitors and understanding what they were doing. Then I began to see just how powerful a law centre could be if it was, not just doing its basic job of providing quality legal advice to people, but if it was respected as an organization with a voice in its local community.”
Perhaps because of this, Coventry Law Centre has weathered the cuts to legal aid funding and changes to the fee structure better than most. The ethos is clear, but how does it work in practice?
They rely on an eclectic mix of funding. One way central government provides legal aid funding is through “matter starts”. Each matter start represents one person or client, and for each matter start you claim a fixed fee.
If a law centre or any other advice organisation relies on these matter starts, then advice work is limited to whatever the government is willing to pay for.
Take housing advice. Under the latest changes huge swathes of housing problems are no longer funded by legal aid. If a client arrives at a law centre wanting to challenge their landlord’s neglect of their property, unless the disrepair caused represents a serious risk to that person’s health, the case is outside the scope of legal aid. Put simply, a solicitor can choose to spend several months helping to sort out a problem before it spirals, but not receive any funding. Or they can wait till their client gets sick from the disrepair, challenge the landlord, and secure legal aid funding for the work.
“It has removed one of the key tools of housing which is early intervention, sound advice to avoid a crisis later on down the line. The drop off in the amount of people we can see is huge,” says Emmett Maginn, a housing solicitor at Coventry Law Centre. “In terms of trying to do case work for somebody from start to finish without legal aid funding, that has been severely inhibited, quite simply because the resources aren’t there. [Though] we deal with the ones which are quite egregious and those particularly vulnerable.”
But it is Sue’s vision that these very people, the poorest and those with claims too small for private firms to take on a “no-win no fee” basis, they are the people the law centre should serve whether the government chooses to pay for it or not. How does Coventry pay for it?
It’s difficult, but by relying on a variety of funders in addition to the government’s legal aid contracts, such as charitable trust funds, large funding organisations like Comic Relief and significant local authority funding, the centre can attempt to provide meaningful legal advice for the most difficult cases.
It is important, says Sue, that the centre’s service is not to be shaped by the government’s legal aid contract. “Our client group tends to have within it a high proportion of people with multiple and complex needs with whom in an ideal world you would spend more time. The legal aid remuneration arrangement really didn’t allow us to do that.
“We were still able to do it to some extent here because of our other funding streams. But law centres that were largely reliant on legal aid were really up against it in terms of remaining true to what a law centre is about. Which is having the capacity to really work with those most vulnerable people.”
Another way the law centre is able to provide a diverse service is through its relationships with other community groups. One partnership is with the Young Migrant Rights Project supporting undocumented young migrants in accessing services, providing them with a legal understanding of their status, peer support, and companionship through what is often a traumatic process. This mix of advice and social work meets an unmet need and has attracted a mix of funding from charitable trusts.
That is not to say Coventry Law Centre remains unscathed.
Their employment team has dropped from three advisors to just one, yet demand is growing. “We had enough work for more than three people. Now we are having to turn people away,” says Elaine Hill, the centre’s employment and discrimination solicitor. And while the government has taken debt completely out of scope, more and more people are getting into debt, says Phil Monk, a solicitor who has worked in money advice for 14 years. Coventry’s team of debt advisors has dropped from four to two, he says. “We are now reliant on housing associations, the city council, and some money from Coventry Building Society fund to do debt work. The debt has significantly increased.”
Even when the economy is healthy there are certain levels of debt, he says. “People get into debt for normal life events – bereavement, divorce, separation, illness. But now you have got the additional fact that some people are losing money on benefits, bedroom tax. You have got the change from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments. All these benefit changes have an effect on how people can afford their bills. People on benefit can’t increase their money, it is what they get. These are disabled people, people unfit for work. How can they cover the extra cost? It is inevitable they are going to get into difficulty. I saw two people only yesterday having to pay extra because of the bedroom tax. Those people have got to find an extra £14-25 a week.”
In such a climate it is easy to see how, despite increased need, Birmingham Law Centre went into liquidation last August. But it is a worrying indicator for Michael and Habib’s enterprise.
Except that the new Birmingham Community Law Centre is in fact an arm of Coventry Law Centre. One of Sue’s partnerships, expanding the reach of what a law centre can do. There is a strict separation in terms of funding. The funding Coventry Law Centre receives from the local authority for people living in Coventry, for example, cannot be used to finance work at the Sparkbrook centre helping people in Birmingham. “The deal is in order to operate here we need to raise money ourselves,” says Michael.
He went to Sue for advice and support in developing a similar type of law centre to Coventry, led by community need and driven by a commitment to social justice. “I hadn’t fully worked out the question that I was asking. I was not far off,” he says laughing. “But Sue helped me shape what it was that I was asking and helped me make sure that I was bringing all of the information that I needed in order to ask the question properly so they could go through some sort of due diligence process.” They developed a funding strategy relying less on legal aid contracts and more on major donations from local and national charitable trusts. They also had to ascertain what funding contracts could be carried over to the new centre.
And Michael had just a month or two to plan all this before the old law centre went into liquidation on 7th August 2013. “There has been a lot of stress in the last 12 months,” he says with a grin.
What helped was the willingness of others to step in. “Almost without us having to ask we then got lots of small trust funds offering us money,” says Sue, “even though we still hadn’t said what we were going to do. What has been really heartening is we attracted so much support from within the funding community and the legal community in Birmingham. Everyone recognised that Birmingham should have a law centre and it is not OK for it not to have one. And they want to support something that hopefully might grow and start to maybe fill a gap that was left by Birmingham Law Centre closing.”
Being associated with Coventry Law Centre with its existing quality standards has meant the new law centre has recently secured legal aid funding contracts for welfare benefits in the upper tribunal and community care. This funding is additional to what they can secure from charitable donations and will help increase office hours and employ more advisors.
Already the centre is beginning to resemble the ethos of Coventry’s set up. In one of the large, empty rooms on the first floor of the Bangladesh Centre, Dave Stamp, a manager from the Asylum Support & Immigration Resource Team, a West Midlands-based organisation, gives immigration advice. There is a huge need in Sparkbrook. Dave can be heard loudly voicing his anger at the council’s refusal to support a young refugee woman and her new-born, who are living in squalor.
There are crossovers between his work, Michael’s work on families with no recourse to public funds and Coventry Law Centre’s migrant outreach work. This presents a strong case for funding from bodies interested in migrant rights and not tied to very local geographical impact.
In many ways Birmingham Community Law Centre resembles the very first law centre in North Kensington in West London back in 1970.
In 1949 the Legal Aid and Advice Act established for the first time a legal aid scheme for both criminal and civil advice, but it was administered and delivered by lawyers in private practice. This created problems of access for those on low incomes and people living in poor areas. In a report written in the late 1960s assessing the first decades of legal aid, Alan Paterson writes: “To the ordinary office or factory worker, the solicitor’s office is far more remote and forbidding than the dentist’s or doctor’s surgery.” Added to this, there weren’t many solicitors’ offices in working class areas. A 1970 documentary by the World in Action team reported that in London, for example, 70% of law firms were clustered around Holborn and the City. Whereas in Brixton there were just four firms serving 100,000 people and two for the 64,000 people living in Bethnal Green in East London.
North Kensington law centre opened in what was then an area beset by poverty, racial tension, dilapidated housing and aggressive policing. In the years before the centre was founded in 1970, Peter Kandler, a criminal law solicitor and one of the founders of North Kensington, recalls cycling around the area giving ad-hoc legal advice to people in their homes and churches. He was part of a group of young radicals trying to root their activism in local communities. Peter, who turns 80 next year, says the “new left” decided the trade unions weren’t doing enough to involve ordinary people with everyday problems in political change.
The new law centre office was based on the high street in an old Butcher’s shop. “A group of us got together and raised the money. I had just got married, my son was a newborn. If I had thought it through I would have been scared,” he says.
The reasoning behind the decision to open the law centre – a decision heavily contested by the majority in the legal industry at the time, who feared the “socalisation of legal aid” and hated the idea of salaried legal aid lawyers – is familiar. The desire was to reach ordinary people providing a mixture of legal advice and social work, all underpinned by a keen sense of social justice. “I don’t think the case for law centres has changed,” says Peter. “They must be based in the community to give a proper service.”
It’s 12.40pm and there are still people waiting in the front room of the Bangladeshi Centre for advice. An elderly man in a long white tunic, a grey woollen cardigan and smart black shoes sits in front of Habib. His plastic bag contains two A4 lever arch files.
His private landlord is trying to evict him for rent arrears. The landlord has also written to the council requesting that they pay the elderly man’s housing benefit direct to him; they agreed. The figures don’t add up and it is clear the landlord has plucked the £2,000 in unpaid rent out of nowhere. The council has also failed to inform the client about the new housing benefit arrangement.
Habib, who gives this advice in Urdu (throughout the morning he has switched between Bengali and English) turns to his computer and begins to type.
Photo by Unsplash