Law Centres: a positive way forward?
The original concept of the Law Centre was a service of salaried solicitors and legal workers who would be able to devote themselves to people’s needs, choosing priorities which reflected the seriousness of the need rather than the profitability of the case. The staff were accountable to a management committee representing locaal organisations and interests. When the movement started, it was described by the Law Society as a means of stirring up political and quasi-political confrontation.
In 1979 the Royal Commission on Legal Services commented as follows:
The impact of law centres has been out of all proportion to their size, to the number of lawyers who work in them and to the amount of work it is possible for them to undertake. The value of work they have attracted shows how deep is the need which they are attempting to meet.
A spokesperson for the Law Centres movement is reported to have commented that the most important thing to know about Law Centres was that they did not just do casework. Their philosophy was that they promoted legal solutions to the problems of poverty, discrimination and social exclusion. The role of Law Centres was to campaign for wider social justice by doing strategic work, including education, test cases and group actions.
Gifford stated in 1986 that the issues dealt with by Law Centres included:
Taking on agencies which had been a major source of oppression and injustice: uncaring central and local government departments, slum landlords and autocratic employers.
Acting for groups of people suffering a common grievance.
Educating people about their legal rights.
Helping people to organise in tenants’ associations and trade unions.
Tackling acute problems which lawyers ought to be involved in but rarely are.
In terms of financial problems, one in three Law Centres are currently reported to be on the critical list and are only surviving by cutting back on more complex, time-consuming cases. Cities like Birmingham and Leeds have been left without Law Centres. They have reached the point where they are providing an extremely inferior and diminished product.