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Law centre calls for pro bono levy on law firms

‘Radical forward thinking’ needed to rebuild Greater Manchester’s legal advice sector

4 July 2017

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Greater Manchester Law Centre has called on the city’s newly elected mayor to introduce a levy on local corporate law firms to fund pro bono and charitable legal services in the area.

In an open letter posted on the petition platform 38 degrees, the centre’s development worker Roz Burgin, chair John Nicholson, and head of the management committee Norma Turner have reminded Labour’s Andy Burnham of his election commitment to make Greater Manchester ‘a beacon of social justice to the country’ and a place ‘where no one is left behind’.

‘We share your belief that radical forward thinking is needed to build a new future for Greater Manchester,’ the signatories of the letter say, ‘and we invite you to put this into practice to support vital legal services’.

GMLC was reborn earlier this year, overturning a succession of law centre closures around Manchester. However, it is only one of three centres in an area – the other two being in Bury and Rochester – which used to have nine.

Burnham, who has pledged to give 15 per cent of his salary to help tackle homelessness in Manchester, visited the law centre in March. ‘I fully support the idea of the Greater Manchester Law Centre and congratulate those involved in getting it off the ground,’ he said at the time, before adding: ‘face-to-face advice cannot be replaced’.

According to the letter, Burnham joined the centre in proposing a levy on Manchester’s corporate law firms that would financially contribute to the local pro bono and legal advice sector. ‘We are now asking you to make this happen,’ it says.

It may be that, as the letter says, ‘This is Manchester, and we do things differently here’, but whether this initiative elicits the support of the local legal community shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The assumption behind the levy is that wealthy corporate firms should do their bit for the cuts-stricken advice sector. But much as the centre has built up sympathy capital in legal Manchester, to single out corporate firms for a pro bono levy could be seen as taking matters a little too far.

There is also the small matter of how one would define a ‘commercial’ firm, and whether the mayor has the powers to impose what could be regarded as discriminatory. As a campaigning tool, however, there is little doubt that the proposal should set tongues wagging around Deansgate.

GMLC re-opened as a campaigning group in August 2016 before securing funding from the Tudor Trust for two development workers. Early supporters included local barristers Kenworthys Chambers and the People’s History Museum.

Manchester’s five universities and law colleges joined the centre’s legal academic services board, and patrons include Michael Mansfield QC, John Hendy QC, and Lord Bach. Bolton-born Maxine Peake, star of BBC courtroom drama Silk, and I Daniel Blake director Ken Loach are among supporters.

Retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Henry Brooke also gave the project his backing. ‘It would be marvellous if you can establish a community law centre in Moss Side. It is badly needed,’ he said at the time of the original campaign.

Talking to Solicitors Journal when the centre relaunched in January, Nicholson said the group would retain its campaigning purpose. ‘We don’t just want to be a law centre, but a campaign for law centres generally. Nor do we want only to provide a bit of service delivery, important though that is, on the lines of food banks – we are a campaign for properly funded legal aid.’

The centre says it is making ‘great strides to meet the advice and representation needs of those who need it most’, but, it tells the former MP for Leigh, ‘we need more than words and encouragement, and we welcome your support for making similar legal services available across Greater Manchester.’

‘Let’s lead the way and try something new, and implement the idea we dreamed up together. To survive, we need to be creative. Let’s fund our free, face-to-face, high quality legal advice and professional legal representation by imposing a levy on commercial law firms.’

Jean-Yves Gilg is editor-in-chief of Solicitors Journal

jean-yves.gilg@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @jeanyvesgilg

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Greater Manchester Law Centre