BY JAMES TWOMEY
A law centre that offered free legal services and had been serving the community for nearly 40 years has been forced to close after cuts to legal aid.
The Lambeth Law Centre in Mowll Street, Oval has closed its doors, claiming the cause is a combination of cuts from the Government and Lambeth council.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at Law Centres Network, said: “The scale of the public funding cuts faced by Lambeth Law Centre in recent years was considerable.
“Six years ago, the Government’s civil legal aid spending was cut by over 60 per cent, and has been declining further since.
“Over the same period, the Law Centre’s council funding has dropped by about 70 per cent – a reflection of local authorities’ dwindling funding and their need to prioritise statutory duties like housing and social care over discretionary services like libraries and advice.
“As Law Centres target their services at people least able to afford a lawyer,
clients are not expected to pay for their legal assistance.
“Thankfully, the Law Centre benefited from grants from charitable funders, but the scale of that funding was never going to be able to replace lost public funding for what is a key ‘safety net’ service for the local community.”
The closure of the 38-year-old centre will remove free access for residents to legal advice in areas such as debt, welfare benefits and community care, employment and discrimination, housing, immigration and public law.
An ex-volunteer at Lambeth Law Centre named Eleanor tweeted about her disappointment at the closure, saying: “Very saddened by this news – I volunteered at LLC until three weeks ago.
Saw so many clients who had been let down by our (lack of) social services in so many ways.
“My overwhelming impression was that LLC was for many people the last bulwark against homelessness, helplessness, and deterioration in mental/physical health.
Its closure is a devastating loss and will have real consequences.”
The law centre had also been collaborating with other organisations to tackle poverty and disadvantage.
Recent initiatives have included dedicated support for EU nationals through Brexit, and public interest litigation through the Public Interest Law Centre.
The Lambeth Law Centre said in a statement: “It is with great regret that the trustees of Lambeth Law Centre announce the closure of the Law Centre with immediate effect.
“Unfortunately, the Law Centre has faced financial pressures caused by legal aid cuts and increased operating costs.
To some degree this was relieved with generous support from our charitable funders, who have understood the need in the community and helped us address it. ~
“However, ultimately the funding shortfall, together with issues with VAT calculations, have put the Law Centre in an impossible financial position.
Having failed to secure emergency funding to keep the Law Centre going, we were left with no choice but to decide on closure.
“The Law Centre’s team is working hard to ensure that all current clients are notified and that their cases are transferred to other advisers in the borough or nearby.
We also hope that some of our staff will be able to join other Law Centres or advice agencies.
“We would like to thank all of our staff, volunteers and supporters for all they have done over the years for the success of the Law Centre and the care for our clients.”
Councillor Jim Dickson, Lambeth cabinet member for voluntary sector and partnerships, said: “We are deeply saddened to learn of the closure of Lambeth Law Centre.
“The advice imparted by the dedicated and caring professionals at the centre over the years has made a huge positive impact on people’s lives, and no doubt has even proved lifesaving on occasion.
“The increasing financial pressures being faced by important community services like this are making it difficult for those most in need to access the help and advice they need.
“Cuts to legal aid are another aspect of this Government’s austerity policies – policies that are being felt hardest by the most vulnerable in society.
“We are working with the centre to ensure that important services for local people which are funded by the council – and delivered by the Law Centre – are transferred to other providers where possible.
A Legal Aid Agency spokesman said: “While law centres play an important role in helping people access justice, they are not the sole means.
“There are 219 nearby legal support providers in South London that provide legal aid services and we will ensure that any clients affected continue to receive help by referring them across.”