Next ILAG Conference - Harvard, Massachusetts, United States, 21st - 23rd June 2023...[more details]

It is nigh on forty years since I last worked in a law centre. So, if a lawyer from the glory days of the early seventies goes back to a centre generally acknowledged to be one of the best of the current crop, how much is recognisable; how much has changed; and what are the issues of wider relevance. Those were the questions to be asked in a recent visit to Avon and Bristol Law Centre.

Much remains unchanged. The building is certainly in the same style: functional public office - lino on the floors, premises in a single story office that once held Bristols trading standards department. The staff (with exceptions to come) are little different from the early days - hair a bit shorter; dress a bit smarter; same commitment to clients. The centres areas of work are broadly the same: social welfare (or, as I would prefer it, social justice) cases, public law, no family, no crime.

The centre is much bigger than most in the 1970s. It has a complement of over 20 staff, 16 full time equivalents. Its catchment area is large and somewhat fluid - a mix of services funded for Bristol residents, other elements of the former Avon Council and various legal aid contracts that take the centre down to the tip of Cornwall and out into Wales. These reflect a much wider range of funders for one centre than was usual in the days when most just got a block grant, with few conditions, from their local authority. This law centre pulls together funding from local authorities, foundations, trusts, legal aid in a way which is more reminiscent of the way that national organisations, like CPAG or JUSTICE, operate than one which is locally based. Clare Carter, the centres director, and Will Stone, its chief supervising solicitor and leader of the employment and discrimination team, both thought that the formation and then the split up of the former Avon council had been a particular factor in encouraging the centre to look outward beyond a narrow range of services to a narrow catchment area. Indeed, more generally, one of the distinctive features of the law centre has been its capacity for partnership. It places itself firmly as a second tier agency taking referrals from those organisations delivering primary advice. Other Bristol agencies have been happy to see it as the lead agency for Bristols Advice Services Transition Fund with its membership of other primary advice providers.

One of the big differences, however, from the early days is the nature of the law centres management.  Founded in 1984, the centre had until recently been a collective. But, four years ago, it appointed Clare Carter, a former family lawyer, as director. After a rather untidy period with a couple of interims and a maternity leave, the management structure is developing further. The centre has just got itself a practice manager to whom its team leaders will report. Jane Rivers used to work for the Legal Aid Agency and helped the centre as a consultant before taking up her post. She explains her job: My main role is to manage the caseworkers performance. People have been focused on doing everything for each client. I am trying to ensure that this takes place within the constraints of funding available. The centre records time on cases: it starts a conversation about what people are doing. It expects four hours of work for clients a day and the hitting of various outcome measures. It has begun measuring cost and putting a value of work undertaken. This, admits Ms Rivers with likely understatement, involves a bit of a mindset change. But, the centres success in more than surviving when many other NGOs in the field have sunk without trace provides a pretty good argument for the new approach.

A sideways insight into the centre came from Sarah Sadek, the trainee who was able to compare it with the London legal aid practice in which she had worked before coming to the centre: There was a lot of change in the private sector so I am not shocked by change. There is much more integration of law here - for example looking at mental health issues in an immigration case. In London, there was never enough time to look at anything other than the immediate case before you. And the cases here are more complex. That may be because of the greater number of referrals from other voluntary sector projects like those dealing with refugees or the victims of trafficking. And how does she find the centre? I would definitely say that this is the happiest place that I have worked.

You can tell that the centre has put the hard yards into planning. It has Lexcel accreditation. There is a strategic four-year business plan from 2013 supplemented by annual ones. In the modern way, missions are declared; values are specified; key achievements listed; strategic objectives identified; and actions specified in the fashionable SMART style. The reality seems in pace with the words. The funding strategy has twelve potential donors lined up for a phased approach - so far it has proved remarkably successful. It all represents an enormous amount of work and provides the kind of framework necessary for survival in the modern world.

The centre stitches together funding in the current year of around £800,00 a year. About a quarter comes from Bristol City Council for work in specified areas such as employment, discrimination and housing. There are legal aid contracts for upper tier representation in social security and public law (taking the centre beyond its narrow catchment area). Transition funding is also helping with benefits work. A Comic Relief project is chipping in. The centre has even managed to raise a small amount from paying clients - though currently little more than £2000 in the year. The centre has a successful Legal Advocacy Support Project (LASP).  This gives law students pro bono experience of advocacy in social security appeals. It is a sort of mini Free Representation Unit limited to social security cases with students trained for placements of a minimum of 30 weeks. The centre has had about 10 to 15 students working with it, largely from the University of Law and the University of the West of England based in the city. Andy King, its manager, is enthusiastic: It is such a joy to work with such enthusiastic and bright young minds. We choose the best students. Most get firsts. We are interested in the extent to which we might be able to scale this up. We are looking to expand. It will be interesting to see if the LAASP model can develop into working with particular groups of clients such as those with a disability such as ME or work infields like homelessness or housing possession.

As one would expect, the external world of legal aid cuts and the internal requirements of contracting impinge on the work of the centre. First, unlike Belfast where law centre staff reported increasing competition from private practice providers in fields like mental health, Bristol - according to team leader Roman Mulqueeney, is facing a retreat of practitioners from areas which once were funded relatively generously by legal aid. Second, the withdrawal of legal aid in family cases is impacting in variety of ways. Some of these were not probably foreseeable such as where a family issue intersects with something else as when issues arises over the care of the children of a mother suffering from episodes of mental disorder. At the very least, there needs to be more flexibility in the application of the cut. Third, the patchwork nature of different entitlement for different types of cases leaves clients with decisions on eligibility, which it was quite difficult for them to understand. The funding mix exacerbates the mess that is currently legal aid scope.

And, so, the overall judgement? There is little doubt. This is an effective organisation and, for all the tensions that there must have been about change, it would be surprising if it were not, therefore, a good place to work. It is well organised; well, if a little precariously, funded and well managed. It clearly lives in harmony with its council - which is creditably committed to advice and representation -  and with agencies that might, in other places, be its competitors. In any rational world, Avon and Bristol Law Centre would be seen as a replicable model of social justice provision - differing from community law centres in Australia and Ontario by being primarily second tier and operating by referral from, and integrally linked to, surrounding primary agencies. If legal aid funding were ever to flow back into social justice then replication of its model might be a better and more controlled way of expanding provision than reinstating the old private practitioner advice scheme.

The big question, which looms out of law centres past is the balance of individual casework and the collective or strategic - whether in terms of community work or legal test cases. For Clare Carter, the key issue is understandably the pressure of resources to meet the changing basis of need. We are having to focus our resources on those that need it.  And, one might add, those for whom some funder will pay. Here the centre encounters a contemporary issue of importance in a number of jurisdictions and on which work is being done in, for example, the US, British Columbia and Australia which might profitably be brought together. What outcomes can be shown from the work of a law centre and how can they be measured in a way that potential funders will accept and understand? In the old days, this was the point where the answer tended to dissolve into a somewhat vague rhetoric. Now we need to develop a sufficient sensitive methodology to reflect sufficiently sensitive outcomes. The success of Bristol and Avon Law Centre puts it in as good a position as any to contribute to this international debate. And, as you would expect, this is a question on which, down in Bristol, work is being done.