We continue to work in an extremely challenging environment. The cost-of-living crisis coming on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic is escalating need and putting additional pressures on the voluntary and statutory support services with which we partner. All the while, the legal aid system in its current form is not fit for purpose and alone, cannot meet the legal needs of our community or individual clients. These are sector-wide challenges that have left large swathes of the United Kingdom without access to legal aid providers, effectively creating ‘legal deserts’ and we are committed to working with all political parties to ensure that this changes. 

The people of Coventry and Birmingham are fortunate in that they have access to the largest law centre in the country but even with our size and financial stability these are challenges that impact our work and operations, particularly in the recruitment and retention of social welfare solicitors and caseworkers, as we compete with a much larger and financially competitive commercial and public sector. Despite this, the team at Central England Law Centre has once again shown resilience, determination and innovation to provide a full spectrum of specialist legal support across seven areas of social welfare law, ensuring disadvantaged people can access their rights through the tenets of every day law put in place to make this country a fair and equal place for everybody. 

Our continued close partnership with Birmingham City University, Coventry University and the University of Warwick have continued to flourish and are vital to our objective of growing and nurturing future generations of social welfare lawyers, alongside our commitment to growing and supporting internal talent within the law centre. This year we have supported three trainee solicitors to qualify, as well as taken on two new trainee solicitors in our housing and family teams and we are due to take on a Justice First Fellow at the end of 2023, the scheme established in 2014 to support the next generation of students committed to public interest and social justice issues who want to pursue a career in social welfare law. In 2022-23 208 students participated in legal clinics supervised by law centre staff, exposing them to the types of legal issues people face in employment, housing, immigration, public law and welfare benefits and providing them with the tools needed to enter the workplace as a social welfare solicitor. 

As always, I find myself enormously proud that, this year, our law centre has been able to help so many people to access and understand their legal rights. Our solicitors and caseworkers have worked on 1,446 new cases, spending many hours working through complex problems with clients; and given 4,237 people specialist legal advice to help them resolve their legal problem.

Clients have included a survivor of domestic abuse supported by our public law team who, against enormous odds, has now successfully legally challenged Birmingham Children’s Trust, the Department of Work & Pensions for and, at the time of writing, is challenging the Home Office and the lawfulness of the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession and how it applies to those living in the UK with pre-settled status. The impact of these cases will be felt by many other families who should not have to face the same issues as this law centre's client and her two children. The strength and bravery of law centre clients never ceases to amaze me. 

The end of the 2022-23 financial year marks the first year with Elayne at the helm and the first full year of our rights in the community strategy, for which we have created a new leadership structure to strengthen the organisation operationally and to support the implementation of the strategy, which underpins our vision of a fairer, more just society in which an understanding of rights and their power is embedded in communities. Although the basic principles of the strategy have long been a part of the law centre’s DNA – supporting people not just with their immediate legal needs but to understand their rights; working in partnership; and using the law to address the root cause of issues, not just the symptoms – the roll out of the strategy has been hugely successful in reinforcing cultural expectations, co-ordinating strategic activity and focusing resources where the organisation can have maximum impact. 

Interviews within the law centre, conducted as part of an evaluation process to help us assess the activity of the strategy’s first year, revealed increased collaboration and referrals between teams and improvements to caseworkers’ legal knowledge of other areas of law, alongside positive results from changes to our enquiries management system, triage process and legal health checks to help identify people’s underlying issues. 

As part of the strategy, Elayne and the team have continued to further diversify the law centre’s funding streams to plug the gaps left by a woefully inadequate legal aid system raising more than £2 million from 25 funders in 2022-23. This has enabled us to increase our holistic offer to our most disadvantaged clients, 233 of whom have benefitted from the help of our two intensive support workers who spend time talking to clients to understand their situations, going through forms, collating paperwork, helping them apply for additional support and navigating the complexities of the legal system, all of which moves them from a position of crisis to one of stability. 

These additional funding streams also enable the law centre to respond to issues they are seeing in a strategic and co-ordinated way. In 2022-23 this included the funding of more than 30 projects, such as Migrant Rights in the Community (MRIC) in collaboration with Coventry City Council, which is designed to reach people whose immigration status is impacting their ability to access services and supportThe MRIC team uses a combination of outreach, training and awareness raising for staff and volunteers about migrant rights in schools, foodbanks, community organisations and family hubs and has already proved highly effective in identifying a number of families whose rights and entitlements were not being met and so were struggling day to day. 

This approach to working is made possible, thanks to support and collaboration of the partners we work with across Coventry, Birmingham and the West Midlands who are committed to a rights-based approach. We remain grateful for their collaboration and for the support of our funders. 

I would like to extend my personal thanks to Elayne for her leadership and to all the staff and volunteers who ensure the people of Coventry and Birmingham continue to have access to justice. 

Keith Wilding

Chair of Trustees - Central England Law Centre

Return to 2022-23 impact report