Article published: Monday, April 23rd 2012
A nationally renowned law centre that has provided free and impartial legal advice to Manchester residents since the 70s is applying to take Manchester City Council to court over funding cuts.
The Longsight–based South Manchester Law Centre will tomorrow make an application for a High Court judicial review against the council’s decision to end funding for its free drop-in and telephone specialist immigration advice used by thousands of clients each year.
Supporters and users of the law centre, which successfully won a legal battle against government cuts to funding contracts last year, are to stage a protest outside the court at 9.30am Tuesday 24 April before the hearing at Manchester’s civil justice centre.
Staff at the centre, praised for it’s “national reputation for expertise” in immigration and asylum law by the council’s review of the city’s advice services in 2008, say they will challenge what they term the “lack of details and transparency” and insufficient consideration of the impact on “marginalised and vulnerable” people in Manchester of the decision to not continue funding.
Caseworker Sukhdeep Singh said the law centre were challenging the decision after they were “suddenly” told last October that there was no money from the council to provide for their walk-in and telephone advice sessions, despite having been in communication with the local authority over funding issues since late 2010.
The centre is the only provider of free specialist telephone immigration advice in the city and have given free advice to over 3,000 people in person and 4,000 by telephone in the last year.
Singh said the law centre had continued to provide the service since funding was originally halted in October 2010, but were now forced to take the matter to court. “During that period we carried on providing, in good faith, an extensive free service to Manchester residents. This free service is now under threat”, he added.
A Manchester City Council spokesperson said ongoing legal procedures left them unable to “comment on this case pending the forthcoming hearing to determine whether South Manchester Law Centre will be granted or refused permission to proceed.”
The challenge is the latest in a series of long-running battles for free legal advice. The last two years have seen the collapse of two major advice providers, the Immigration Advisory Service and Refugee and Migrant Justice, following restrictive reforms to government funding, and the closure of most of the services provided through the council’s own Manchester Advice in the wake of severe local authority cuts. The Legal Aid Bill, currently working its way through Parliament, will also see severe reductions in public funding for advice and representation.
General advice in the city is still available through six Community Legal Advice Services (CLAS) centres in Manchester, run by the Citizens Advice Bureaux, which receive an annual £3 million from the council and the government funding body the Legal Services Commission. According to council documents, the CLAS worked with 50,000 people over the last year including 1,850 advice interventions relating to immigration cases, however the service is only equipped to provide “low level” immigration advice and was designed to compliment and not replace existing advice services in Manchester.
South Manchester Law Centre staff claim the cuts have worsened issues identified in the council’s 2008 review of people “paying high fees for poor quality immigration and nationality advice” from some private providers, ultimately leading to greater costs as those with unresolved situations “then turn to the not-for-profit sector for assistance”.
Singh said, “the Council know, from their own report, that this will force people into paying money for bad advice but are clearly not interested in the effects. They have also not responded to requests we have made for details of their decision making process.
“We have been left with no alternative but to take them to the High Court to protect the interests of our service users.”
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