Government agency spent £34,000 in bid to block free legal advice

Article published: Friday, February 18th 2011

A government body spent tens of thousands of pounds on barristers’ fees and used five members of staff to win a battle over funding against a local not-for-profit organisation which provides free access to legal services, MULE can reveal.

According to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act the Legal Services Commission (LSC), the public agency responsible for allocating legal aid, paid barristers up to £225 an hour in fees totalling over £34,000 to defend a case against South Manchester Law Centre (SMLC). This was done in order to fight the centre’s bid to have funding restored – even though the case never came to a full hearing.

Last July the LSC decided not to renew the majority of legal aid casework funding to the centre, based in Longsight, which previously provided expert legal advice and representation for over 34 years in areas including employment, housing and welfare rights law. Consequently Manchester City Council withdrew funding for generalist advice, leaving the centre in a perilous position and unable to provide most services.

In a bid to have its funding restored SMLC mounted a legal challenge against the LSC’s decision on the ground that the process for awarding contracts was flawed in that it failed to take into account the quality of services delivered by service providers.

However this was withdrawn on December 29 of last year and a joint statement issued by the LSC and the Centre said: “the LSC recognizes the value of the service provided by the South Manchester Law Centre and the Law Centre thanks the people who have been supporting it during this difficult period. Both parties are happy that the JR proceedings have been mutually withdrawn without resorting to costly litigation.”

Yet even before the dispute could reach the litigation stage it appears that the LSC failed to avoid falling into a ‘costly’ operation.

The figures reveal that five employees at the LSC were involved in the preparation of materials, including the Legal Director and two Senior Legal Advisers. In addition two external barristers were engaged by the LSC on the case for a total of 151.6 hours which cost £34,210.08, a sum amounting to just over £225 per hour of work.

This occured even though judicial review proceedings were cancelled and the case was never heard in full court.

When contacted by MULE, an LSC spokesperson said: “The LSC only instructed counsel in response to judicial review proceedings brought by South Manchester Law Centre. The law centre later withdrew those proceedings and we were pleased that this matter did not go to court. We recognise the value of the service provided by South Manchester Law Centre and we’re confident that, as a result of our tender, people in south Manchester will continue to receive the help and advice they need.”

Laura Wilmshurst of Friends of South Manchester Law Centre who organised the campaign, spoke to MULE:

“Its a shame that at a time when public funding is so scarce that the LSC spent such a large amount of money that could have been put to better use. It seems an extortionate sum considering that the case only went to a preliminary hearing and never full judicial review.

“If they had engaged in more dialogue then the money could have been used to fund the law centre and other centres around the country which provide a valuable service.”

Supporters of the centre last year urged the LSC to desist in defending the judicial review and restore funding, arguing it was wasting public money while people in vulnerable situations were denied access to justice. The calls were ignored as the LSC stated that it was bound by the tendering process through which legal aid contracts were awarded, which effectively placed service providers in competition against one another with the result that many smaller independent organisations were squeezed out of the market.

The campaign to save SMLC garnered much public support, including that of local MP Gerald Kaufman. It once provided specialist services such as a dedicated caseworker who worked with female victims of domestic abuse subject to immigration controls, and won plaudits for its work with the Somali community.

Currently South Manchester Law Centre is still taking on new immigration and asylum cases as it waits for a decision on whether funding for generalist advice will be restored by the Council. Prospects however look uncertain given the numerous cuts to local public services.

Michael Pooler

More: Cuts, Features, Migration and asylum, Welfare

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