Updated: Friday, 24th November 2017 @ 8:08am

The fight is on: South Manchester Law Centre's passionate battle for survival

The fight is on: South Manchester Law Centre's passionate battle for survival

By Paulyn Lloyd

Shouting, colourful banners, excitement, pens and pads at the ready; no it’s not a Take That concert it’s a protest to save South Manchester Law Centre.

The campaigners were outside Manchester City Council’s annual meeting on October 13th and their emotive chants along with their vibrant banners gave a bit of colour to an otherwise grey and cold Autumn day.

After passing the passionate crowd I sat in the public gallery and braced myself for a mundane council meeting.

 Then the crowd flooded into the public gallery and suddenly things started to get interesting.

The meeting was opened and the protestors, despite their immense numbers, were surprisingly quiet.

Councillor Paul Shannon requested permission for the group’s spokesperson to speak.

However the group were 'gagged' by the City Solicitor, who said: "We don't consider this to be urgent business."

In response, a lawyer from the centre, Joanna Thomas shouted: "We are the community and we want answers."

Unfortunately the pleas were not acknowledged and they left the building.

Intrigued by their campaign I caught up with Ms Thomas at the busy centre a few days later.

She told me: "We should have been able to say our piece to the council.

“That should be part of a democracy, that people are able to make representation to the council at a meeting. It is urgent; we are on notice of redundancy by the end of December.

“If it isn't there, then, where can people publicly be heard?"

Since the centre’s funding was cut from £50,000 a month to £10,000 in September, campaigners have fought relentlessly to reinstate it.

They have organised protests, public meetings and even setup a Facebook campaign.

The message is clear; this law centre is not going without a fight.

The Longsight based centre has served the community for 35 years and was one of the first to open outside London.

It specialises in asylum, immigration and women’s rights work including sexual and domestic violence.

Funding was cut when the centre lost out in bidding processes for council contracts and it’s now facing closure.

 

Vulnerable

 Ms Thomas said: “This is a huge blow and will mean many vulnerable people will have nowhere to go.

“We provide a voice for the people with the least voice and these people will be the ones who are most affected.”

 If the centre closes; services will be taken over by The Community Legal Advice Service which opened on October 14th and is run by the Citizens Advice Bureau, Shelter, solicitors Glaisyers and Platt Halpern, and Cheetham Hill Advice Centre.

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) and the council have also promised they will invest £9m in the next few years to open centres across Manchester.

But campaigners claim the new arrangements will not provide an equivalent service.

Ms Thomas said there will be gaps in the new service and the solicitors who have been given the new contracts are not as well equipped to deal with complex immigration, asylum and women’s rights cases.

 

On-going fight

Despite being 'gagged' the fight continued and a public meeting was held on October 28th, it was there Sir Gerald Khafman MP pledged his support to the campaign and encouraged the packed community centre not to give up hope.

He declared: “The danger to the Law Centre is a great concern to many people.

“This is a deliberate decision by the government to cut legal aid to people who cannot afford to have any other kind of recourse to solicitors or if its needed barristers.”

He praised the staff and the service they provide but he said that it wasn’t about the staff it was about the people of Longsight and surrounding areas losing the service.

“If we get to a point where they (the Law Centre) feel they need me to launch a debate in the House of Commons, I will.  I will fight for the South Manchester Law Centre,” he said

Closing the meeting Mr Khafman passionately concluded: “This isn’t the end of the story, this is an ongoing story and we will fight for a better ending.”

 

Denials

However Councillor Glynn Evans, executive member for adult services at Manchester City Council denied that there will be any gaps in the service and insisted that it will be improved.

He said: "I want to make it clear to Manchester residents that they will continue to receive the excellent standard of legal services they have previously done so.

“In fact with six new centres there will be more services available to people across all areas of the city and these will be far more accessible."

 

The Clients

However Ms Thomas said the transfer of services will mean that clients will be limited to one solicitor even if there is a conflict of interest within the case or if there is a break down in the relationship between them.

Sawee Rahman, from Longsight, said: “They offer a brilliant service and they have helped me many times. Private solicitors charge a hundred pounds an hour I can’t afford that.

“I will have nowhere to turn. The staff at the Law Centre are honest and they give advice that other places don’t offer and it’s free.

“The decision is totally wrong and we badly need it to stay open forever.”

As from November 15th the council and the LSC will not fund any new cases in employment, housing welfare or benefits at the centre.

Mohammad Noor, an asylum seeker from Rwanda, has been a Law Centre client for eight years.

He said: “With no family, I have known the centre since my first week of arrival and they have been like a family to me.

“The news of the centre closing down has been a heavy load for me without adding the uncertainty of the decision that the UKBA will make. These are people who care for people like me.”

The fight continues and campaigners will hold another protest outside the Civil Justice Centre on November 8th.  Their appeal against the LSC’s decision will be heard inside.