Thursday 19 March 2020

Ketan Sheth: Brent needs to establish an effective 'Access to Justice' service following the Law Centre closure

This Opinion piece by Cllr Ketam Sheth, chair of Brent Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee first appeared in Asian Voice LINK Reproduced by permission of the author

After half a century of community service, Brent residents now have no access to free legal advice, severely curtailed access to legal aid for housing, no access to advice on employment law and no advice to assist challenges to PIP, UC and welfare benefit assessments.

We know English justice system is complex, slow and expensive: all of which impacts on poor people’s accessing legal representation. Our justice system is too often incapable of producing just outcomes that are proportionate to the problems brought to it or reflective of the needs of Brent people it is meant to serve.

Brent is generally a poor area, with 33% of households living in poverty, and 31% of employees earning less than the London Living Wage – a higher rate than any other borough except Newham. Private rent is very expensive relatively to local low earnings as a result low earners spend a disproportionate percentage of earnings on housing, it is not surprising that people are evicted in Brent at a higher rate.

With such stark statistics, it is evident that the Borough needs access to justice services. Yet those who could have done something about accessing justice for those in the Borough allowed free legal advice be dismantled brick by brick.

For Brent Community Law Centre access to justice meant enabling people to avoid eviction, resolve employment, welfare and employment issues, address problems and disputes regarding immigration and citizenship, all of which meant people could live hassle free and confident lives. Intellectual capital in the Borough is now weakened, and the people of Brent are left without independent advice and representation.

Access to justice includes providing people with the information they need to understand the law or supporting them to resolve their own disputes without having to go to court. Brent Community Law Centre took an expansive view of the civil justice system to include not just courts, but all services, institutions and organizations that support people in getting the skills, knowledge, resources and services they need to manage their legal problems.

In these challenging times, people need an effective locally based professional service which is collaborative, not combative; people-centred, not number focused; experimental and evidence-informed; not one that is stifled by unnecessary bureaucracy.

The Law Centre looked at the justice system from the user’s point of view and included users of the system as partners in improving it. Fulfilling this perspective led to a multi-disciplinary approach because, from the point of view of the user, legal problems are usually only one aspect of a larger problem that has economic, social, psychological and other aspects.

So, going forward, the Borough needs to work arduously in establishing an Access to Justice Service based on working with local legal services: big and small, to deliver an effective Brent pro bono legal service with the one aim which balances three elements: improved population access to justice, improved user experience of access to justice and improved costs.

1 comment:

Philip Grant said...

The views expressed by Ketan Sheth are clear, well informed and (most importantly) absolutely right!

All of his colleagues on Brent Council, of whatever party, should support him, and make sure that the people of our borough get the free legal advice service that many in our community need.