The Law Centres Network has today asked major law firms for their assistance in setting up an emergency Justice Fund, to keep Law Centres open throughout the Covid-19 crisis and beyond, at a time of surging need.
With massive job losses and income drops threatening homes and livelihoods across the country, Law Centres are seeing growing demand for their help. However, they are experiencing a crisis of their own, as the special conditions imposed on the justice system mean the loss of vital legal aid income.
As charities, Law Centres have already been working 'on a knife's edge' following public funding cuts over the past decade. The sudden loss of income, and the lack of clarity over when it might be regained, are endangering the vital legal assistance they give to hundreds of thousands of households a year.
Law Centres' services include managing debt, securing homes and benefits income, ensuring sufficient care arrangements and access to public support by attaining immigration status. However, the emergency situation poses its own challenges. As one Law Centre solicitor has put it, "It's just trying to make sure no one is falling through those gaps which are even bigger than they have been... and we're going beyond the legal issues even more so than usual."
So far, Law Centres have not been able to make much use of the government's small business support package as they are not in a position to guarantee loan repayment. To date, a similar package for charities has not been announced. Help from public bodies or charitable funders is expected to take some time to become available, but in some Law Centres the cash flow challenge is more immediate.
For these reasons, the Law Centres Network is calling on law firms on behalf of our members to contribute to a 'Justice Fund' that would distribute emergency sums to tide over Law Centres in urgent need.
Several law firms, including DLA Piper, Mishcon de Reya and others, have already pledged £85,000 toward the Justice Fund. Based on an analysis of Law Centres' positions, the Law Centres Network estimates that £500,000 would be needed to support the Law Centres most in need.
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, said:
"We need to be here to be able to support the community during this tough time so that, with an illness such as this, if they survive it physically, lives are not destroyed through a failure to get legal assistance when they need it. This is our very duty as Law Centres."
Firms wishing to pledge their support for the Justice Fund are welcome to contact us.