Last year, the South West London Law Centre provided help and advice to 3,200 people. This year, Croydon Mayor Jason Perry is cutting all council funding to the centre. KEN TOWL attended their annual meeting last week to hear about the likely impact of the cuts
“How is the cost of living crisis affecting you?” I ask the CEO.
“My stock answer,” he says, “is that, come what may, we never meet demand.”
In a sense, business is booming for Patrick Marples, the chief executive officer of the SWLLC, the South West London Law Centre, a collective of legal firms in Croydon, Wandsworth, Merton and Kingston. The Croydon office appointments book is booked solid to the end of April. There is no shortage of clients.
Marples cites a variety of causes for this: years of austerity economics, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, or LASPO, covid, the hostile environment for migrants, and now the cost of living crisis.
He is concerned, too, that Croydon’s 15per cent Council Tax hike this month will further exacerbate the problem. The more free legal advice is needed, the harder it will be to access.
This is the state of the country now. Successive governments have put taxpayers’ parsimony at the front of policymaking for so long that the services that our grandparents voted for and came to expect in the years after World War II, are on their knees. This is true for the NHS and for what’s left of the state education system, and it is also true for the justice system.
In 1949, when Legal Aid was introduced by Clement Atlee’s Labour government, 4-in-5 people were eligible for help with civil legal costs. In 2009, nearly 934,000 Legal Aid cases were started. By 2014, two years after the passing of the LASPO Act, this was down to 171,577. As eligibility for legal aid collapsed, the number of providers of legal aid fell, too.
Large areas of the country became “legal aid deserts”, where it was impossible to get help for issues such as debt, housing, employment or immigration, unless you were able to pay the £200 per hour or so rate of solicitors in outer London. By 2020, only 1-in-4 people were eligible for legal aid.
And so, the burden falls to an ever greater extent on those law centres which do still provide some degree of free advice, and have managed to navigate their way through crisis after crisis, by relying on donations from the likes of the Lottery Fund and law firms. Until last month, there was some money coming in from Croydon Council – but Mayor Jason Perry is cutting grants to the voluntary sector. “This,” says Marples, in his calm, understated way, “has caused difficulties.”
So what does this mean for the people of Croydon?
It means people will lose their homes when they have a right to stay in them, people will lose jobs when they have a right to keep them, and people will go without benefits to which they are properly entitled.
In 2021 to 2022, the South West London Law Centres helped 6,664 people access justice and gave £1.5million of free legal advice to people who kept their homes, kept their jobs, stayed out of debt, achieved settled status and avoided persecution.
I was at the SWLLC’s Croydon office in Davis House on Thursday for their annual meeting. The atmosphere was mixed. There was concern for the precariousness of funding for the legal advice sector; the chair of trustees, Allan Blake, said there is need for a “robust system of funding that offers long-term stability to the legal advice sector… otherwise people will be denied access to justice”.
On the other hand, there was pride in what had been achieved, and understandably so. SWLLC has made a lot of difference to a lot of people.
The guest speaker was Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones, whose recent cost of living advice leaflet, directing constituents to a variety of sources of help and advice, was praised by Blake. Jones, in turn, praised the work of the SWLLC, grateful on behalf of her constituents that they were there to provide the expert, specialist advice that people need.
She spoke about the caseworkers in her constituency office who triage cases out to the likes of the SWLLC and Citizens’ Advice Bureau, and how, in Parliament, because Croydon Central is on the Home Office’s “Top 10 list” for immigration advice, she can access help quickly.
On the other hand, she cited a high turnover of demoralised staff at the Home Office as a drag on their ability to help. She bemoaned the fact that, in employment cases, people were having to put up with working conditions that they should not have to, and that she had seen a 75per cent increase in cases that her office refers to foodbanks. She described Croydon as a “large borough with a small advice sector”.
Unfortunately, due to Mayor Perry’s judiciously targeted cuts, that advice sector is more likely to shrink than to grow.
When asked if Labour had plans to repeal LASPO and increase spending on legal aid, Jones did not commit but she did say that Labour would be looking at legal advice and also at enhancing tenants’ rights, so that tenants could ask for repairs and improved conditions without the fear of receiving a “no-fault” eviction as a response.
In response to a question about whether the Metropolitan Police should be broken up, following the constant stream of scandals surrounding the force, Jones, the Shadow Minister for Policing and the Fire Service said no, but that she accepted the Casey Report in full and that she felt that the Met needed “complete reform when it comes to culture and leadership… it’s about vetting, reform, leadership”.
Jones also said that there were good people who want to do a good job but can’t because of underfunding, and said that this applied as well to the fire service. She cited the Police Service of Northern Ireland as an organisation that had managed to radically alter its culture of sectarianism and become a force for all the people of Northern Ireland.
And, after a round of applause, Jones hurried off to her next AGM, that of her own constituency Labour Party round the corner in Ruskin House.
I said goodbye to Patrick and asked him if he wanted me to encourage people to contact the SWLLC if they needed advice, given the backlog they are facing. He looked back at me with the face of a man who is not minded to turn anyone away.
If you ever need advice, and you don’t have a spare few hundred pounds, you can access the SWLLC via their website, here.
And if you have a spare fiver you could visit the site and press the big red “donate” button in the top right corner. Right now, the SWLLC, and the people they help, need your help.
Read more: Here’s the Mayor and 33 Croydon Tory councillors who THREE times voted in favour of hitting you with a 15% Council Tax hike
Read more: Only three councillors were as good as their word and stood up for the people against Tory Mayor Perry’s 15% Council Tax hike
Read more: Perry says there’s no alternative to his budget. But there’s lots
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Can Ken Towl compare and contrast the service offered by SWLLC and CAB (Citizen’s Advice Bureau), if the latter still exists at all?
One of the (unwelcome) developments the erosion of paid-for advice services has caused, and is hinted at in Ken’s article, is the increasing reliance the public are placing on their elected representatives. Sarah Jones’s and other MPs’ casework volumes, and the kind of cases they are handling, would provide illuminating reading of where the demand for help and advice is falling.
Our MPs have their offices, and office staff, paid for by Parliament, and they are able to recruit staff on the basis of experience and qualifications for handling such enquiries.
But the cuts to council services, even the reduction in opening hours for the council’s phone lines, is pushing evermore numbers of people to their councillors for advice and help. This is properly part of the role of councillors, and they do receive some payment through allowances, and some training. But few of them are qualified social workers or lawyers. They try to help and fill the vaccuum created by the cuts, but it is an effect of the cuts that the local authority is providing advice on the cheap.
Sarah Jones seems to have successfully pulled the wool over the Law Centre members’ eyes. A few vague words about the importance of legal aid and advice are no substitute for policies to put more resources into it.
But we know Rachel Reeves (Labour Shadow Chancellor) has said she supports continued austerity. There were cuts to Legal Aid under the 1997-2010 Labour Governments. Moving forward to today, there isn’t more than a cigarette paper’s distance between Labour’s policies and those of the Tory Government.
The endless cycle of Labour reckless spending followed by Tory cuts continues.