YLAL Wales: Access to Justice and Legal Advice Deserts in Wales

 

YLAL Cymru hosted this virtual event on Wednesday 24 June 2020. The event was chaired by law student and YLAL member Crash Wigley, who introduced the panel of speakers who spoke on the impact of advice deserts in Wales. It was particularly prevalent that the lack of legal advice is affecting vulnerable individuals such as those with disabilities, the homeless and ethnic minority communities, and is exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19. 

 

The first to speak was Angharad Price who works for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in Wales. The Commission was established in 2007 across the UK to promote, protect and enforce equality and human rights. Angharad started by explaining that advice deserts are a significant problem in Wales, and as a result of Covid-19, there has been a disproportionate impact on communities such as the BAME population as well as issues of accessibility for disabled people needing to access essential services. Angharad then went on to explain some of the yearly reports produced by the EHRC. She began with ‘Is Wales Fairer’ from 2018 where it was established that the closure of courts and tribunals in Wales resulted in geographical barriers to access justice, particularly among rural communities and those with mobility conditions. The Commission’s aim each year is to increase the amount of advice available. Some recent work by the Commission includes an inquiry carried out into inclusive justice with the aim of understanding the experiences of disabled defendants looking at whether their needs are properly identified and whether adjustments have been made. Angharad believes lawyers should be doing more by looking to identify what adjustments are needed for their clients and an example of this could include spending more time taking instructions. As a result, the Commission is working to raise awareness of wider discrimination issues that vulnerable people may be facing when accessing justice through virtual events, free training, developing a litigation guide for lawyers and a helpline and website for advisers. 

 

Next to speak was JJ Costello who is head of housing services and responsible for housing advice and support services at Shelter Cymru. JJ opened the conversation by explaining that  Shelter carries out policy and campaigning work to increase housing rights as well as weekly advice surgeries offering housing advice. JJ then highlighted the budget that the Welsh government are providing, which includes £6.6 million for funding social welfare advice and an additional £1 million for housing advice through a homelessness prevention fund. This fund is extremely important for Wales as there is a high demand for benefits, debt and housing advice. However, the fund is not necessarily sufficient. This is made apparent by some statistics provided by JJ including that Wales only has 2 solicitors nationally doing housing work. However, JJ did bring some positives and spoke about how the Thomas Commission recognises that the Welsh system is not delivering for those in Wales. Further work includes raising awareness on how to access various advice agencies and opportunities available to the public. JJ concluded with a link to COVID-19 by explaining the efficient use of remote working, and how this has allowed advice to be given to a greater number of people. JJ noted that we are likely to see an unprecedented increase in demand for advice when courts re-open, so digital delivery could be a tool to combat this increased demand.

 

Third to speak was Hussein Said from the Speakeasy Law Centre. Hussein is a trainee solicitor in Cardiff and a Justice First Fellow (JFF). The main focus of his talk was on the limited access to support and justice for asylum seekers. Hussein acknowledged that  the provision of legal aid is a systemic issue in Wales and results in individuals going to tribunals alone and their cases being refused. Hussein then went on to discuss his Justice First Fellowship. The JFF a is a training contract for people with an interest in social justice issues and social welfare law. This is an important scheme as it brings together a cohort of like-minded individuals, Hussein explained. Concluding, he outlined the current project he is working on, where he is hoping to open a legal advice clinic for trans people, which will be the first of its kind in Wales. The aim is for it to be led by the trans community and concentrate on non-discrimination law and for a leaflet to be produced for trans people explaining their rights. The aim is to help combat the social inequality the trans community face. 

 

Last to speak was Annie Bannister and Sue James representing the North Wales Law Centre Project. They hope to open up a law centre by 2021 in North Wales after realising how much of a legal advice desert it is. Annie provided statistics showing that the number of firms providing legal aid in Wales has fallen by 29% since 2012. She explained that North Wales is one of the poorest regions in the UK, and of the 47 law centres across the UK, there are 0 in North Wales. Overall, their aim is to work in partnership with organisations that already exist within this sector. Sue acknowledged that one of the challenges they face is deciding a physical location, as there is a need to get coastal and rural communities connected. She states that what works in London will not work the same in North Wales. Annie claimed there is now a need to make connections and that she hopes from speaking at this event they will be able to develop some connections that will provide the ‘glue’ to setting up their law centre. 

 

The event ended with a lively Q&A where important questions arose such as the impact on legal aid if it was devolved to Wales and how to encourage Welsh lawyers to practice in Wales. 

 

The session then concluded with a poetry reading from Siân Pearce, of Bristol Law Centre. Siân read her poem ‘I want to be a lawyer mam’ from the anthology Lockdown Lawyers edited by Emma Trevett and Jon Whitfield QC. Lockdown Lawyer addresses how COVID-19 has impacted legal aid lawyers. All proceeds from the book will be donated to law centres. You can purchase a copy here. https://www.lag.org.uk/shop/book-title/208154/lockdown-lawyers

 

We are very grateful to YLAL member Olivia Godfrey for this write-up. If you'd like to volunteer to write up a future YLAL event, email ylalinfo@gmail.com.