The last twelve months has continued to be difficult in terms of the cost-of-living crisis that comes after an extended period of social and economic uncertainty with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still being felt This has created a significant challenge to living standards for us all but particularly for those on low incomes and the effect is that there is an ever-growing gap between what people have and what they need for a decent standard of livingMore people do not have enough money to cover their basic needs and more people are denied access to justice to challenge unfair decisions and enforce their rights. 

As a community law centre our vision is a fairer and more just society for all and, particularly, for those who have been further marginalised by this period of social and economic uncertainty and the lack of long-term investment in “levelling up, not only in terms of geography but also within communities who are disadvantaged.   Our mission is to ensure that we embed rights within our communities to reduce inequalities, challenge unfair systems and advance social justice through specialist legal advice and education.   

The effects of low income and unresolved legal rights means that people are living in circumstances that prevent them and their families from thriving.   Barriers and restrictions exist within the very systems in place to support people. Access to justice is being further eroded by lack of investment in the legal aid system. Discrimination and injustice impacts on the lives of people on a day-to-day basis and frontline services are struggling to meet demandWe believe access to justice is a fundamental right for all and that early legal help is vital to ensuring people can understand and enforce their rights and are prevented from reaching a point of crisisBy working alongside our partners in the community, we are able to not only address issues at an earlier stage but also identify system issues that can be challenged in the courts.   

Law centres fulfil a unique role in making these rights available to everybody. Specialising in social welfare law and embedded within communities where they can reach the most disadvantaged, they have an in-depth knowledge of the issues people face. They use this knowledge to help people save their homes; keep their jobs; protect their families; and much, much more. 

But the legal aid system - in place since 1949 to ensure every person is able to ‘prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right’ - is unsustainable in its current form. Legal aid for social welfare law does not cover the work involved to resolve all the issues a client faces. The administration and governance of the legal aid system is burdensome and the system is not flexible and responsive enough to effectively tackle legal issues. 

At Central England Law Centre we have to seek funding from alternative sources to ensure clients receive a holistic service that gets to the root of a person’s legal problem.  At present, only 20% of our income comes from legal aid. Even though we are the largest law centre in the UK and have financial sustainability, we have faced issues recruiting into solicitor and caseworker roles because of challenges across the civil legal aid sector. These are sector-wide issues that I will continue to focus on in the next financial year, alongside colleagues in the Law Centre Network, to ensure that the system of legal aid works to effectively protect the most disadvantaged in our society. 

Against this backdrop and following our organisation's strategic and operational response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we launched our rights in the community strategy in April 2022. We want to continue to support individuals to uphold their rights and build their understanding of their legal rights; while breaking the cycle of intractable problems by tackling the causes of unfairness and inequality, not just addressing the symptoms.    

But we can’t do it alone. Partnerships lie at the heart of our strategy. We have mobilised a network of partners across Coventry and Birmingham to put rights at the centre of their response to helping people; collaborating in social action and on key issues; and ensuring the most hard-to-reach and disadvantaged people in our communities have access to justice. Together we have continued to take positive action on poverty in Coventry, developing the work of the Poverty Alliance with Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire and our network of partners across the city which now comprises over 60 organisations. The network is a vehicle for organising practical action and an invaluable forum for us to ensure that rights are at the heart of responses to poverty in the cityRecent work has included campaigns on benefit sanctions and prepayment metres; and a project to map the provision and gaps in energy advice within the city. Plans are now being put in place to develop a steering group working alongside people with lived experience of poverty and deepening engagement with those impacted. 

Another important way in which we are working within communities to understand the issues people are facing is our collaboration on a research project with Warwick Law in the Community, Law for Life and seven community partners in Coventry. The Legal Needs Research Project has been designed to investigate needs that have emerged in the wake of the pandemic, the impact of increased reliance on digital technology and the role of public legal education (PLE) in improving access to justice for marginalised groups. As well as interviewing the law centre’s strategic partners, the research includes the voices of individuals with lived experience to understand their legal needs and the challenges they have encountered in the community. The interviews explored the intersection between the reality of marginalised groups regularly being subjected to legal processes (welfare benefits system, care entitlements or maintaining stable housing) and the challenges they face in navigating these processes, with a particular emphasis on legal and digital capability. 

As part of the initial phase of our rights in the community strategy, further work has been undertaken within the law centre to build capacity in key areas, such as provision of wraparound support for clients struggling with mental health which affects their ability to engage with legal advice; and the expansion of our public law team which has secured a number of successful judgements, the impacts of which will be felt by a significant number of disadvantaged people. 

An increased focus on partnership work in Birmingham has enabled us to build more and stronger relationships with a broad range of partners to progress future work and collaborate with in delivering new projects. And we continue to contribute our expertise to drive change in key forums within the region, such as the West Midlands Combined Authority NRPF Homelessness Taskforce and the Migrants Rights Policy and Practice thematic group on rights. 

Making a difference to the lives of people we work with is at the heart of everything we doBy providing lawyers to provide holistic legal advice and representation to individual clients, by working with our partners to ensure people’s rights are identified at the earliest stage possible and by challenging unfair policies, practice and laws.   I am so proud to work with people who remain committed and dedicated to ensuring that people who are most in need of our services are provided with high quality specialist legal advice, representation and support. 

While there is no doubt that it has been another challenging year for both our partners and our team of staff and volunteers, they have continued to undertake their work with diligence, dedication and compassion. I would like to thank each and every one of them for their commitmentAnd thank you to our funders for their trust and belief in our work. 

Elayne Hill

Chief Executive Officer, Central England Law Centre

Return to 2022-23 impact report