Legal aid cuts put Cross Street Law Centre in Erith on brink
PUBLISHED: 12:58 26 June 2013 | UPDATED: 12:58 26 June 2013
At the start of April significant changes came into the civil legal aid system as part of the government's plan to save £350million.
The knock-on effect is that institutions like Cross Street Law Centre in Erith are under risk of closure as the changes mean many of the types of cases they would take on – such as employment, welfare benefits, debt, and most of housing – are no longer eligible.
As the only specialist service of its kind in the Bexley borough the centre plays a vital role in the community, but its chief executive Kathy Smith is not optimistic about the future.
“Since the start of April until now we’ve had to close our drop-in advice sessions and turn away 100 people because we don’t have the funding to help them and that’s a horrible feeling.
“Lots of our clients don’t have access to money to pay for a lawyer and won’t qualify for legal aid in the future.
Debbie Ketts, 44, started using the centre when she and her son were made homeless.
“When I first went to Bexley Council they wouldn’t listen to me. They thought I’d just had enough of living where I was.
They wouldn’t listen to anything I have to say and I’m sure I wouldn’t have got so far without the input of the law centre.
The centre has more clout than an individual and is a great help in that situation.
If they were to close people in a similar situation to me might not be able to get the help and advice they need. It would be a great loss.”
Tony Gurney, 42, from Barnehurst used Erith Law Centre to help him sort out some crucial disability benefit forms. He suffers from fibromyalgia, which causes his chronic pain.
“Without the centre I wouldn’t have had access to the expert help I needed filling in the forms.
The advisors are brilliant at helping people understand and I also have trouble writing due to my condition, so someone filled the forms in for me.
Citizens Advice Bureau would be the only option available for people who can’t afford a lawyer, but they’re at breaking point as it is.
The government plans amount to a withdrawal of the system not a reform and it’s very disappointing.”
“Wealth should not determine access to the law. It should be universal like the NHS or education.”
The help Cross Street Law Centre now receives through legal aid is restricted to housing disrepair which is seriously affecting a client’s health or where someone is in danger of losing their home. All other housing, employment, debt and welfare benefits cases are no longer covered by legal aid.
There are eight volunteers and six paid employees who advise people on a range of civil law matters but all of their roles are under threat. Four volunteers have already left since April. Kathy thinks the centre may even close this financial year. But they will not give up without a fight. More than 7,000 people marched from The Royal Courts of Justice to Hyde Park on the London Legal Walk in May to raise awareness – and money.
Said Kathy: “The Law Society estimates that 650,000 cases a year won’t qualify for legal aid in the future [this is in twice] – this is what we’re fighting against.
“The effect of the changes is that the tenant who is in a flat unfit for habitation, or the person with disabilities who is wrongly classified as fit for work, the employee wrongly dismissed because she is pregnant, can no longer get our free help to take legal action and that will take power away from the common person.”
The centre receives small amounts of funding from Bexley Council to help people with benefit appeals and Trust for London, an organisation which aims to reduce poverty and inequality in the capital for employment cases. But most of the funding came from legal aid and despite raising more than £50,000 this financial year from various sources, that will be nowhere near enough to survive in the long term or to reinstate the services which have been cut.
n Cross Street Law Centre is still accepting sponsorship for the London Legal Walk. To make a contribution you can visit tinyurl.com/cslcwalk2013.