The Toynbee Hall Free Legal Advice Centre has been giving advice to East Londoners for more than 100 years. When I used to help at a legal advice centre 50 years ago, I would go to the Dame Colet House centre in Stepney Green, a little further to the east, but I have always been aware of the existence of the Toynbee Hall FLAC, and recently I have visited Toynbee Hall a number of times. On these visits I have heard about – and witnessed – the remarkable redevelopment programme that is now under way there, and learned about all the other services they are providing. Last Monday, however I saw the FLAC in action for the first time – and was hugely impressed.
In this blog I will republish the Press Release which Toynbee Hall has just published about my visit, and then express a few reflections about what I heard and saw.
Here is the Press Release:
Sir Henry Brooke sees the rise in need for free legal advice services on visit to Toynbee Hall
Sir Henry Brooke, retired Lord Justice of Appeal and supporter of Toynbee Hall’s Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC), visited the centre on Monday 24th April to cast his expert eye on the immigration law session. Sir Henry met staff and volunteers to share his experience and expertise.
The Immigration Law session on a Monday night began in 2016 and has been full to capacity since. The cuts to legal aid, legal services and subsequently the Brexit decision, have had a devastating impact upon access to justice. This is identifiable when it comes to immigration law advice with more people than ever in need of legal advice in this area, yet there is a scarcity of free services and a struggle for funding.
Through providing one-off legal advice on a range of legal issues, FLAC helps people from Tower Hamlets and across London to navigate the complexities of the legal system and empowers people to understand their rights, ensuring wider access to justice.
Toynbee Hall is working towards creating a Legal Capability Network which will call on the legal fraternity for promotion and guidance. Sir Henry is on the Access to Justice Commission and therefore has a particular interest in this area.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, and I was impressed by the professionalism and the enthusiasm of the staff and volunteers. If only there were more units like the Toynbee Hall Free Legal Advice Centre to meet the enormous need”.
Sir Henry Brooke
Since setting up our immigration law advice service in 2016 we have been full to capacity. In the light of Brexit, LASPO and further closures or cutbacks to many provisions the need for our service is now at record levels. We are very concerned that there are insufficient provisions to meet this growth in demand and that access to justice is being further eroded.”
Emma Pheby, Free Legal Advice Centre Manager, Toynbee Hall
And here are my thoughts about the visit.
The Toynbee Hall FLAC provides advice in different fields of law on different days of the week. On Monday, the immigration law team and the employment law team were both hard at work, and on other nights advice will be available on family law, welfare law, debt, etc. I wanted to see what was happening on the immigration law front because the law is so complicated, the statutory authorities are often so inefficient, and the decisions that get made are of such central importance to people’s life that I knew that the removal of public funding from so many areas of immigration law had had a catastrophic effect on the operation of the advice sector in this field, and I wanted to see for myself what was happening.
In short, except where detention is in issue, legal aid has been “removed from scope” for all immigration cases, except those that involve asylum, domestic violence, victims of trafficking or issues of national security. The Court of Appeal has now made it clear that exceptional cases funding must be available in certain immigration cases, but although the numbers of such grants have grown in the last 12 months, the criteria are so complicated as to be beyond the normal capacity of a non-specialist advice centre to comprehend.
Advice on immigration law has its own regulatory system. This is needed because, as the Law Centres Network told the Access to Justice Commission,
The removal of legal aid from most of non-asylum immigration cases, coupled with ineffective regulation, have seen a veritable free-for-all of rogue immigration advisers (despite the best efforts of regulator the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner) providing shoddy services or part-services or defrauding people, putting their very status in the UK at risk. Law Centres are seeing more such victims who come to us for help: in one case, an EU national had gone through four immigration advisers over three years, simply trying to settle his permanent residence, only finally succeeding in doing so when he came to one of our London Law Centres.
At Toynbee Hall, the advisers are restricted to giving what is called “Level 1” advice. This means that they have got to refer their clients to another centre – and these are now few and far between – if they need more than advice or assistance in drafting documents. But at least they have arrived in the right place: all too often a non-specialist agency refers a client to another non-specialist agency which is equally unable to provide help in a field of law which is increasingly complicated. A specialist set of barristers’ chambers said last year:
On Monday I heard that people’ worries about the implications of Brexit had led to an enormous increase in the requests for advice. If they can access the necessary resources – both in funds and in advisers – Toynbee Hall would like to double the number of advice sessions they provide, and still they will not satisfy the demand.
None of this will feature in the current election campaign, if past performance is anything to go by.
It should be so simple. If Government makes complicated laws, it should be willing and able to provide front-line advice to people who need to understand how to access the justice the Government prides itself in providing. This always used to happen. But it is not happening just now.