19 February 2014: I’m in London for a meeting. Text from Michael Bates, the manager at our Birmingham office: ‘Thought you’d like to know, I’ve just clubbed a rat to death with a broom.’ This was new territory for me as a manager, but I correctly guessed that the event had been a bit traumatic for everyone – not least the rat. Post-trauma advice on disposal from Birmingham City Council’s environmental health team was to ‘double bag it and put it in one of the [overflowing] bins in the street’.
We’ve come a long way since opening Birmingham Community Law Centre in 2013. We now have an office cat.
Coventry Law Centre, where I worked as director, opened in 1976. We were jogging along quite nicely and minding our own business thank you when Birmingham Law Centre went into liquidation in the summer of 2013. A victim of legal aid cuts and other changes to its funding, its closure left Britain’s second city with no law centre and very limited access to specialist social welfare law advice.
I believe in access to justice. I see every day what the work of law centres means to people I describe as ‘living on the edge’: people whose lives are not stable and for whom things can easily go wrong – because they are living in poverty, or have a disability or a long term condition, or because their immigration status is unresolved, or they are victims of domestic violence.
Birmingham has many such people. Some 40% of its population of just over 1 million live in areas described as the most deprived 10 per cent in the country.
The plan hatched up by Michael and Habib – two former employees of Birmingham Law Centre – was that we at Coventry Law Centre would help them to open an office in the Bangladesh Centre in Sparkbrook – Birmingham’s second most deprived area. The premises hadn’t been used for some time and were rent free. They were willing to start without wages as they could live on their redundancy money. They would be at the heart of a community with nearly 80 per cent minority ethnic residents and they wanted to do what they had been specialising in – migrant rights.
I’m so risk averse I don’t ever bet because I assume I’ll lose. Our Coventry Law Centre trustees were rightly very concerned that we would over-stretch ourselves and that we were moving beyond our stated purpose.
But eventually our hearts won over our heads.
And we really have come a long way. In just over two years, we’ve helped nearly 3,000 people. We now have six staff based in Birmingham and some services operated by lawyers from Coventry. We have community care and welfare benefits upper tribunal legal aid contracts; a debt advice contract via Citizens Advice; we offer employment advice in partnership with Birmingham City University at Birmingham CAB premises; we have an immigration advice clinic supported by students from Birmingham University and the Birmingham Law Society Pro-Bono Committee is leading a fund-raising drive for sponsorship from local firms to support a Legal Education Foundation Justice First Fellow traineeship for us. We run outreach services and work in partnership with SIFA Fireside – a charity improving health and inclusion for homeless people.
And… we’ve been able to continue the valuable work started by Birmingham Law Centre in relation to migrant rights. We’ve had several significant successes in challenging fees for appeals, and in relation to ‘Zambrano’ families. We’re currently challenging the reduction in levels of asylum support to children.
Has it been easy? No. It’s been incredibly hard work for everyone.
Would I do it again? Definitely.
We’ve had amazing support from funders. We’ve built new relationships in Birmingham. We are building a regional presence. We’ve changed our name to Central England Law Centre. Karen Ashton has joined us from Public Law Solicitors to establish our new Public Interest Litigation Unit. We’re collaborating with Birmingham City University on the development of a social welfare law degree. We’ve shared skills and expertise across the two offices and we’ve worked really hard to build one team and not to operate as two. Anyone at last year’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards would have seen me grinning from ear to ear when Central England Law Centre won the award for legal aid firm/not-for-profit agency of the year.
But… the pressure to keep finding new funding is relentless. Our infrastructure is creaking and we’re about to invest significantly in better IT. The Bangladesh Centre is now becoming a little bit too small and we need to deal with a leaking roof. The A45 between Coventry and Birmingham is very well travelled and we have had all the tensions you would expect when you operate across two sites.
On balance though, it’s been a very positive thing – both for replacing some of the services lost when Birmingham Law Centre closed, and for creating new opportunities to enhance the work that Coventry Law Centre was doing.
Do I have the best job in the world? Yes. Rats included!