Free legal advice is again on offer to some of the city’s most disadvantaged people after a new operation was set up to replace the axed Birmingham Law Centre.
When the centre, based in Small Heath, was forced to close its doors in August due to a lack of funding there were fears the city would be left without an important legal safety net for the poorest in society.
But Michael Bates, who worked at the old law centre for 17 years, was determined to see it replaced and with the backing of Coventry Law Centre his seen his dream came to fruition.
The new Birmingham Community Law Centre is already operating and now Mr Bates has been recognised for his achievements by winning the Reita Clarke Memorial Award from the Law Centres Network for successfully getting it off the ground.
As Birmingham Law Centre was preparing to shut its doors in the summer, after being in existence for more than 100 years, Mr Bates approached Coventry Law Centre with a business plan.
Together they won support from local and national funders in the shape of the Barrow Cadbury Trust, the Yardley Great Trust, Friends Hall Farm Trust, The Grimmitt Trust, the Harry Payne Trust and the Access to Justice Foundation, raising almost £150,000.
They also landed a legal aid contract and found free accommodation at the Bangladesh Centre in Walford Road, Sparkbrook.
Although it is early days for the new venture, Mr Bates said he has high hopes it will succeed and ultimately fill the gap left by Birmingham Law Centre.
“It was inconceivable that Birmingham – the Second City – should not have a single law centre and we were determined to make sure we could recreate one,” said Mr Bates.
“We’re not yet in a position where we can replace what was lost with Birmingham Law Centre but that is what we are working towards.”
He added: “We’re also doing it in a way which shows we understand the model needs to change and we need to change the way we provide our services. We have started small and we are growing, I think we need to be careful how we expand and fill the gap.”
Birmingham Law Centre provided legal advice and representation on social welfare law for people who could not afford to go to a solicitor.
It employed four solicitors and eight caseworkers, assisting around 2,000 people each year and was forced to close in part as a result of the Government’s legal aid cuts but also due to other sources of funding being eroded.
The new law centre employs three staff, Mr Bates, who is a caseworker and manager, solicitor and caseworker Habib Ullah and administrator Judy Parkinson. It also has two volunteer staff.
After finding a new home at the Bangladesh Centre, which had been empty for several years, Mr Bates and his colleagues recruited volunteers to decorate it and moved files and furniture from the old law centre.
Since it opened it has helped around 200 people and already there are plans to recruit two more staff.
It provides free legal advice and representation in welfare benefits, debt, community care, public law, immigration and employment.
Emphasising just how much it is needed, Mr Bates said: “The need is certainly not smaller, it’s greater. Welfare reforms and cuts to local services are making it very difficult for our clients..
“Much of our sector has contracted and the current climate has made it very difficult for lots of people to make ends meet.
“The need for a law centre providing advice in the community at the same time as specialist legal solutions to people is needed more than ever.
“It was important to have a law centre and help re-establish a law centre service for Birmingham as there are certain things only a law centre can do in terms of finding legal solutions for people.”
As well as being one of the few organisations in the country that can give advice on welfare benefits in upper tribunal appeals it also represent people in higher courts like the Court of Appeal in vital test cases.
In order to expand the work it is doing Birmingham Community Law Centre is now appealing for help from Birmingham’s legal sector.
Mr Bates said it had already been helped by the Birmingham office of DLA Piper, both in setting the law centre up and providing pro bono advice to clients, particularly in the field of employment law.
He said: “We are looking to other firms to see if they can help us bridge the gap that has been left in welfare reform and cuts to local services and the withdrawal of much of legal aid.”
The new law centre has also signed up to be a part of Gateway to Birmingham Advice Services, led by CAB and involving Shelter, Freshwinds, Birmingham Tribunal Unit (BTU) and Birmingham Settlement and other advice agencies.
The initiative aims to offer a more joined up approach to offering advice to people in need and is also liaising closely with Birmingham City Council.
Mr Bates added: “Birmingham is a big city with a lot of organisations and sometimes it can be difficult getting them all to work together and in the same direction.
“Hopefully knowing the law centre is there for people to refer complex cases to will be an inspiration for organisations to work together.
“But we have to accept that there are fewer organisations with fewer staff hoping to provide advice and support to a growing number of the poor, vulnerable and destitute.”