Monday, 20 September 2010

Manchester Law Centres face closure

Two Manchester-based Law Centres are at risk of closing their doors to clients for good from next month as they have lost out in a tender to run legal advice services in the city.

Manchester City Council and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) decided to reconfigure the cash they currently spend on legal advice services into a competitive tender for a Community Legal Advice Service (CLAS). The tender was won by the city-wide Citizens Advice Bureau service, in partnership with private law firms and an independent advice centre. The council and the LSC argue that the new service, which will operate from six venues in the city, will provide better 'joined-up' services to Manchester residents. They now intend to withdraw funding from next month from South Manchester and Wythenshawe Law Centres. This is more than likely to force them to close.

Based in Longsight, a deprived, ethnically diverse part of the city, South Manchester Law Centre has been established for 36 years. Paul Morris, an immigration case worker at the Law Centre, told LAG that he and its 14 other staff got their redundancy notices last week. Morris fears that the Law Centre's clients will be 'driven to sharks and charlatans' if the Law Centre is forced to close. The Law Centre has launched a campaign to try and persuade the council and the LSC to continue supporting it. 'We are not going down without a fight', says Morris.

Gillian Hodges, senior solicitor at Wythenshawe Law Centre, told LAG that while the Law Centre has not issued redundancy notices to its seven staff yet, it is at 'serious risk of closing'. The Law Centre has been running for 26 years in Wythenshawe, which is one of the largest council estates in the country. The Law Centre understands that it scored higher than the successful bidders on quality, but the chairperson of the Law Centre's management committee, Bernard Caine, says the 'council and the LSC have chosen lower cost over quality and it is local residents, including our own families and friends, that will suffer'.

The Manchester CLAS along with the Wakefield CLAS, which was also announced last week, are the latest additions to the half dozen such services now up and running. The previous government and the LSC were keen to establish new CLAS, but mainly due to local councils’ fears about the continued existence of existing advice providers the idea has received little support. One of the first CLAS led to the closure of Leicester Law Centre and Gateshead Law Centre closed last year citing among other issues difficulties with operating the CLAS. Hull Citizens Advice Bureau, one of the oldest bureaux in the country, was also nearly forced to close when it failed to win a tender for a CLAS two years ago. It is now operating a much reduced service.

Paul Morris can see 'no good reason' why a service 'praised and appreciated by the community it serves' should be forced to close. No money will be saved by establishing the new service as the council and the LSC are putting the same amount of cash into it. To LAG, the policy of establishing CLAS seems to be an example of change for change's sake in the public sector. Particularly in areas in which long established services are forced to fold when a CLAS is established little demonstrable benefits are brought to clients. What is in danger of being lost in Manchester, if these Law Centres are forced to close, is experience and quality - two ingredients which are essential to providing legal services that get results for clients.

Image: South Manchester Law Centre

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