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Law centre axe is a 'tragedy' for poor, says peer.

Byline: ENDAMULLEN enda.mullen@birminghampost.net

The closure of Birmingham Law Centre, which provided free legal help and representation to some of the city's most vulnerable people, has been described as "a tragedy" by its patron.

The sudden closure has also been greeted with sadness and shock by the city's legal community.

The Small Heath-based centre, which dates back more than 100 years, posted a notice on its website advising clients it had shut following cuts to its funding and informing creditors they would be contacted by the Insolvency Service.

In January this year the centre revealed it faced the prospect of closure unless last ditch emergency funding could be found.

In the wake of its closure Birmingham Law Centre's patron, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, told the Post: "I am very disappointed that it has had to close - a victim of the Government's legal aid cuts.

"They have some wonderful people there doing a great job dealing with very complex cases that no one else can do.

"It's a tragedy for Birmingham and all the people who use the service."

The Labour peer went on to say he hoped something could be done to replace it, believing it fulfilled a vital role in offering legal advice and representation in complex cases to some of the most vulnerable people in the city.

He added: "I do hope some way can be found to get a new centre going to provide advice. I hope that the legal community in Birmingham will step up to the plate."

The centre had received advice and assistance from Birmingham Law Society for some time in a bid to stay afloat and its former president Mary Kaye named it as one of her charities of the year during her 2012/13 term of office.

When the centre was under threat earlier in the year Ms Kaye said it would be "inconceivable" for a major European city like Birmingham not to have a law centre.

She added that its work "lessened the work other organisations have to do" adding it could "head off things that become bigger social problems further down the line".

It is not known whether any eleventh hour rescue of the centre can be mounted, but Birmingham Law Society confirmed talks were ongoing and its council meeting being held yesterday was due to discuss the matter in depth.

Chris Owen, chairman of the society's board of directors, said: "Birmingham Law Society is obviously saddened and shocked by recent events at Birmingham Law Centre and we are continuing to speak to the trustees."

The Coventry Road centre employed four solicitors and eight caseworkers to assist around 2,000 of the most disadvantaged people in the city each year.

In January Birmingham Law Centre's chief executive Peter Lowen said the organisation was not "crying wolf" and was struggling in part as a result of the Government's legal aid cuts. He added that other sources of funding had been "eroded by gradual cutbacks".

The centre provided legal advice and representation on social welfare law for people who could not afford to go to a solicitor. It had specialist contracts from the Legal Services Commission to provide advice on debt, welfare benefits and housing and also carried out casework in community care and employment.

Unlike the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) it specialised in taking on complex cases which sometimes required Judicial Reviews.

Mr Lowen warned its closure would leave a gap that could cost council and government agencies in the long run.

He also painted a grim picture of the demise of law centres in the city and said: "There were once four in the city but they have been gradually whittled away because of a lack of funding."

He said he remained convinced the centre could be viable from April this year if it managed to get through the 2012/13 financial year and said a restructure in order to reduce costs, including making some staff redundant, would help it achieve that.

The centre's survival appeal was also supported by Labour peer Lord Bach and Birmingham barrister and former government minister David Lock QC.

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The Law Centre's patron, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 27, 2013
Words:698
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