The government has announced a £5.4m cash injection for law centres and other legal advice charities to help people with housing, debt, discrimination and employment problems during the Covid-19 crisis.
Both the Law Society and Bar Council welcomed the money but said it should not be seen as an alternative to supporting the profession.
Funding allocated to the Community Justice Fund will be administered by the Access to Justice Foundation, with the Law Centres Network overseeing funding earmarked for law centres.
The money is in addition to £3.1m committed by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for organisations that support litigants in person, which is also being managed by the foundation and details of which were unveiled last week.
The MoJ said there has been an increase in people seeking advice for social welfare cases during the coronavirus outbreak “and this is expected to further increase demand from the legal support sector”.
Justice minister Alex Chalk said: “Law centres and charities in the advice sector play a vital role in helping people access justice and resolve their legal problems. That is why they should be supported to continue to operate safely and effectively during the Covid-19 pandemic
“This additional £5.4m support fund will help do just that – giving providers the support they need to boost remote capability and help as many people as possible during these challenging times.”
Ruth Daniel, chief executive of the Access to Justice Foundation said: “We are delighted with this support for specialist social welfare legal advice agencies who are providing essential help to people and communities at this difficult time.
“The Community Justice Fund will work in partnership with the sector to support organisations with their response to the current challenges they are facing and aims to help the sector to emerge from it stronger and more resilient than it was before the crisis.”
Helen Rogers, chair of the Law Centres Network, added: “We thank the government for this vital support… The pandemic’s uneven impact is a grim reminder of the deep inequality in our society that affects every aspect of life.
“This support recognises the key role of legal assistance in reducing inequality and bringing justice for all.”
Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC said the money was “good news” but “should not be seen as a substitute for the specialised expertise that the legal professions provide to members of the public”.
She continued: “Without financial measures to support legal practitioners, particularly self-employed barristers – many of whom are not eligible for the government’s existing support measures – there won’t be a profession with this expertise in a few months.
“Propping up law centres is only a small part of what is necessary to protect the public: if it is not accompanied by practical support for barristers and solicitors, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat, access to justice will sink with them.”
Law Society president Simon Davis said the funds would be “a great help for the most vulnerable seeking to access justice”, but stressed there were “very real concerns about the survival of legal aid firms”.
He said: “We hope similar investment will be made across all other areas of the justice system under duress.”
The litigants in person funding makes good the MoJ’s commitment last year following publication of its review of LASPO.
The money is to be split into two years of grants and is separate from the nearly £8m already spent on the litigants in person support strategy (LIPSS) since 2015.
In a letter to justice committee chair Sir Bob Neill MP, Mr Chalk explained that, while the LIPSS worked to draw together national organisations behind a single strategy, the new fund would make direct awards to individual services, “which will help us to increase our understanding of how litigants in person move through the justice system”.
He added: “We will also remain open to adapting some of the goals of the grant, in order to look at where we can potentially support services that are specifically responding to the impacts of Covid-19.”
The minister said evaluation was central to the new grant, “ensuring value for money and helping the MoJ build up our evidence base to make a robust case for sustained future funding”.
Separately, the emergency appeal launched last month by Access to Justice Foundation and London Legal Support Trust to seed a new National Advice Fund has raised more than £365,000, with the foundation and other funders promising to match the first £200,000.
The fund aims to support law centres, specialist independent agencies and some Citizens Advice services. Click here to make a donation.