Coventry Law Centre is establishing a specialist legal advice service in Birmingham to provide a foundation that will develop to fill the gap left by the closure of Birmingham Law Centre.
Our plan combines the expertise, local knowledge and contacts of some of the staff who were employed by BLC with the organisational strength, management and leadership capability and experience of Coventry Law Centre. Together we will create Birmingham Community Law Centre.
We have attracted funding from Barrow Cadbury and other local trusts, and we are bidding (by invitation) to The Baring Foundation/Comic Relief and Unbound Philanthropy.
On 7th August 2013, Birmingham Law Centre (BLC) went into liquidation, leaving Britain’s second city without a law centre service.
Law Centres defend the legal rights of people who cannot afford a lawyer. They are not-for-profit, solicitor- led legal advice agencies able to provide an holistic service to the most vulnerable and deprived members of society. They deal with the law that affects everyday life: welfare benefits, debt, housing, community care, immigration and asylum, as well as employment and discrimination and public law.
Birmingham is ranked the third most deprived core city in the UK, behind Liverpool and Manchester, and is ranked the most deprived in terms of both income and employment deprivation. With a population of just over 1 million, Birmingham is the largest local authority in the country. Deprivation in Birmingham is mainly concentrated in a ring around the city centre that closely follows the inner ring road and Number 8 bus route. Approximately 40% of Birmingham’s population lives in areas described as in the most deprived 10% in England.
BLC provided advice on complex matters where immigration impacted on benefits, housing and community care because of the unique way in which it could combine funding from legal aid and other sources.
Whilst law centres take a unique, holistic approach to legal advice, the loss of BLC is more keenly felt because, since April this year, legal aid is no longer available for benefits, debt, employment, immigration and some housing matters. So solicitors in private practice will not undertake these types of cases; and organisations like Birmingham CAB who provided benefits and debt advice have also lost their legal aid funding for this work.
What are we bringing together?
The service will initially be based on a core of specialist expertise that had been established within BLC before its closure: a migrants’ rights team.
The migrants’ rights team developed a very specific legal aid practice dealing with cases where immigration, housing and benefits join together. They built up an extensive network of friends and other agencies that referred clients directly to them. Some of these partner agencies are at the forefront of understanding and developing new and innovative challenges to public bodies with reference to the clients they serve. These agencies include ASIRT, Red Cross, Refugee Council, Hope Housing, Lifeline Options and Asylum Support Appeals Project.
There are very few practitioners dealing with this area of work and the casework undertaken by BLC before it closed demonstrated an enormous need in Birmingham for this work. The advisers involved also demonstrated an ability to undertake complex and challenging casework:
1. For the last two years BLC has been challenging the DWP over their refusal to award Social Security benefits to Zambrano carers. This is a particular type of migrant family where EU law grants a derivative right of residence to a third country national who is the sole carer of a British child. Connections made with the barristers at Garden Court Chambers led to other work: BLC joined them in a test case on section 17 Children Act and suitability of accommodation and levels of financial support.
2. BLC has won some high-profile cases in the Court of Appeal in the past few years including the housing benefit private sector bedroom tax case, Burnip, Trengove and Gorry as well as the local authority’s duty to accommodate migrant families in Birmingham City Council v Clue. Currently they have Sanneh v SSWP going through the Court of Appeal.
Coventry Law Centre has been in existence since 1976. It is one of the largest Law Centres in the UK, currently employing 9 solicitors and 12 caseworkers. As well as covering all the main areas of social welfare law, it is acknowledged nationally for its partnership working and for developing innovative solutions with partners that combine advice with other forms of support to tackle multiple and complex needs.
Birmingham Community Law Centre
The new service is based at the Bangladesh Centre in Sparkbrook, directly on the Number 8 bus route – which connects the eight inner-city wards where deprivation is highest and where the migrant population is 76%. Unemployment, low income and destitution levels are therefore much higher amongst migrant communities, who historically have relied on services such as that provided by BLC to access services to which they are entitled. For example, migrant families with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ who are entitled to support and accommodation from local authorities are being turned away by social services at an alarming rate as councils look to reduce expenditure in the face of large budget cutbacks. Frequently, the only way in which these families can obtain an assessment let alone access services is by threatening the local authority with judicial review.
Sparkbrook itself is the second most deprived ward in Birmingham and, contained within it, is an area which is within the most deprived 5% nationally. It has a very long established migrant community: 64% of the local population is from the South Asian community with just under 10% from the Caribbean. There are growing numbers of Somalis, including refugees and asylum seekers as well as those who have moved here directly from other countries in the European Union. The Sparkbrook ward also has the youngest population in Birmingham with 40% below the age of 20. 77.6% of the population is defined as non-white in the 2011 census and 42.5% were born overseas.
Many people live in overcrowded conditions with several generations sharing accommodation in order to reduce living costs. According to the 2011 Census data, 22.5% of households are overcrowded – almost double the percentage for Birmingham as a whole. Home ownership is high at 43% although many also live in rented accommodation privately owned by other members of the community . The local area is well served by shops that stock most items that the local community particularly likes and need and the shops are run by members of the same local community who share a common culture and language. There is thus little need for many members of the community to leave the local area: much of daily life can be conducted by walking a short distance to the shops or to family or other community members’ houses. More than 50% of local residents have no access to a car. There continues to be a great emphasis on face-to-face contact in daily transactions.
At 18.8%, unemployment is also higher than the Birmingham average and average household income is lower than £20,000. Compare this with the Moseley and Kings Heath ward where unemployment is at 8.8% and average household incomes are in excess of £50,000 per year. The combination of low income and greater numbers of children means a greater reliance on child benefit and child tax credit although, unlike other deprived areas, there is evidence of under claiming ESA and Disability Living Allowance.
Reduced mobility, through fewer transport options or having little need or desire to move beyond local boundaries plus high levels of deprivation, low levels of income, an inability to communicate effectively with statutory agencies through difficulties of language and understanding leave this community in need of access to face-to-face advice and advocacy.
What will the new service offer?
In the short term, we will concentrate on services that are relevant for the local community and for other migrant communities within the inner city. We will build on Birmingham Law Centre’s long established weekly ‘outreach’ services at the Bangladesh Centre that provided legal advice to over 250 people per year. The main types of problems dealt with were: debt, benefits, housing and immigration.
We will offer an accessible, open door service at the Bangladesh Centre for local community advice work
• Benefits/Debt basic advice work (form filling, phone calls, signposting)
• Assistance with on line applications in readiness for the introduction of Universal Credit
• Low level Immigration work, form filling, witness statements, statutory declarations, submissions
We will take referrals from other agencies across the city for specialist legal advice and representation:
• Migrants rights (access to support and accommodation under s17, s21, s4, asylum support etc)
• Immigration advice and representation
• Public law challenges
• Benefits Upper Tribunal challenges
• Debt County Court Representation
We will build on the partnerships BLC had with a number of other migrants’ rights organisations to provide practical legal solutions to problems as they arise. For example, three years ago, asylum seekers making the transition from asylum support to mainstream benefits immediately after being granted refugee status were frequently left without funds. BLC developed a system of interim payment applications for delayed benefit payments, including challenges by way of threatened judicial review for continued delay. This approach successfully unlocked access to support for over 100 refugee families. The interim payment mechanism was then shared with partner organisations, who were then able to make the applications themselves on behalf of their service users, alerting the DWP to the need for a much quicker response – which eventually avoided the need for judicial review for delayed payments.
We will also work closely with Birmingham CAB, providing specialist advice within a partnership of advice agencies that is funded by Big Lottery. In this partnership, we will take the same approach as described above: we will use our specialist legal expertise to support and empower the work of other advice agencies in the city: using the law to provide solutions to problems caused by inefficient and ineffective systems and working together to ensure that those who are marginalised and disadvantaged have their rights upheld.
Without Borders – West Midlands Migrants Rights Service
Combining the legal expertise and local community connections of Coventry Law Centre and the former Birmingham Law Centre offers an opportunity to establish a new practice. ‘Without Borders’ will combine strategic litigation with rights based policy advocacy informed by the views and expressed needs of the migrant communities in which we work.
At the heart of the service will be the combined legal expertise of CLC and former BLC staff. This will offer the opportunity to bring together immigration and asylum lawyers with community care, welfare benefits and discrimination expertise to create a practice founded on close links to migrant communities in both Birmingham and Coventry.
We will work in partnership with ASIRT and Hope Projects in Birmingham, as well as Peace House, Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre and St Peters Centre in Coventry. We will use these partnerships to give a voice to migrants via the Migrants Union in Birmingham and the Regional Asylum Activism Project.
CLC also runs the Young Migrants Rights Project in Coventry – reaching young, undocumented migrants; and is researching and establishing a transnational network around ERPUM (European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors).
We have had initial discussions with Professor James Harrison (Co –Director, Centre for Human Rights in Practice, University of Warwick), with whom Coventry Law Centre has a long-established relationship, and Professor Dallal Stevens (Associate Professor, Asylum Law, University of Warwick to establish both student involvement in our proposed services and, importantly, a research capability.