The Law Centres Network is today launching a new campaign for access to justice as part of activities for the 50th anniversary of the UK Law Centres movement. The new campaign, Law For All, is launched with a new report, taking stock of the justice challenges driven by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The report shows how people could find themselves unable to access legal assistance to protect their home, job or benefits without also pushing themselves and their families into poverty. The warning comes as new figures show that nearly 650,000 people have already lost their jobs so far during the pandemic.
The report's first part looks at typical social welfare law problems and examines how the pandemic has affected them. It considers, for example, changes in demand for services, in the ways people seek advice, in the ways legal advice is delivered, and remaining issues.
The second part presents the concept of the 'Justice Gap', the lack of access to justice affecting the nation's 'squeezed middle': people who are unable to afford to pay for legal assistance, but are also not eligible for legal aid. This is calculated against households' Minimum Income Standard, the level of earnings they would need for ordinary day-to-day life, rather than for survival only.
The research finds that millions of people in the UK are caught in the Justice Gap but would not know it until they are in urgent need of help. They would then be forced to choose between no legal protection or falling into poverty. This vast population includes, among others:
- ** 44% of working single people with no children
- ** 51% of working couples with one newborn child
- ** 76% of working single parents with one primary school child
Researcher Professor Donald Hirsch fo Loughborough University said:
"We need to decide as a nation whether we are committed to ensuring that income constraints do not restrict access to justice in those areas where we think it should be open to all.”
Even before the Covid-19 crisis, legal aid funding cuts meant that half a million cases in 2019 alone could not be helped. During lockdown, the drop in legal aid funding was so considerable that the government provided Law Centres with “key charities” emergency funding for six months. This saved Law Centres from imminent closure, but highlighted need for further support, so they can continue to help people in hardship now and through the coming recession.
A new Justice Fund will provide an independent source of funding for Law Centres to help people, including those not covered by Legal Aid. When employment, housing or family problems arise - all more frequently now - people affected will be able to turn to Law Centres for affordable legal support to overcome these hurdles and get on with their lives.
The fund has already received £125,000 in backing from law firms but much more investment is needed. A series of fundraising events and activities are planned to help reach and sustain, initially, a £500,000 cash reserve to be drawn upon by Law Centres, so they can continue to help people in need.
Law Centres Network director Julie Bishop said:
“Our data shows a funding sinkhole: many working families are not covered by legal aid and do not know it. If they are personally affected by the pandemic’s economic impact, they are unlikely to afford legal fees for protecting their home and loved ones. As the country begins recovering from the pandemic, we must ‘build back better’ and create long-term sustainable funding that can meet the changing needs of the communities we serve.”
The report is available for download below.
Coverage of the launch:
Law Society Gazette, "Millions could fall into 'hidden justice gap'"