A shift in gear

Set up in response to urgent need for legal advice during the pandemic, the Community Justice Fund is now working towards a longer-term vision.

Clare Carter
Joint Chief Executive, Access to Justice Foundation

The Community Justice Fund is a partnership of funders, advice sector umbrella organisations and frontline advice agencies, who recognise the value of using the law for social change. Set up in response to urgent need for legal advice during the pandemic, the collaborative is now working towards a longer-term vision of creating a sustainable funding mechanism for the advice sector.

Specialist legal advice uses the law as a tool to help people through problems including poverty, housing, employment, benefits, debt or immigration. At the start of the pandemic, it became clear that the already under-funded advice sector was about to be hit with a massive crisis. Members of the National Advice Funders Network came together to explore how we might get more emergency funding out to the sector in a way that reduced the burden of applications for frontline organisations. Building on learning from the London Community Response, we set up the Community Justice Fund (CJF) where organisations could apply for funding using a single form.

As independent funders, we’ve got more resource and less urgent demand than our frontline partners, so it made sense to take on more of that administrative burden by bringing together and simplifying our processes. This wasn’t without its challenges. We had to rapidly scale up our operations to give out three or four times the amounts of money we were used to. This meant building a team and putting new processes in place, all without having a strategic plan or longer-term direction for this work.

The collaboration could not have succeeded without the time given by individuals involved. Daily calls at the start of the pandemic helped build trust and strengthen relationships. My advice for new collaborations would be to invest in this human element, which became a source of support and connection. It’s important to get to know the people you are collaborating with beyond the big group meetings, making time for one-on-one conversations and talking about things other than work. 

This helped to create a space for honest, sometimes difficult conversations. Although we were getting more money out, more quickly, we were never going to have enough to match the need. This required us to challenge one another, to reach decisions about focusing our funding criteria on where our expertise could have the most impact.

The partnership’s credibility gave us greater leveraging power. We could secure more funding for the sector as a collective than we could have as individual organisations.

A portrait photo of the author
Clare Carter
Joint Chief Executive, Access to Justice Foundation

Pooling funds and knowledge

The knowledge and expertise within the collaboration was a particular benefit for funders who were less familiar with the legal advice sector. Access to justice is relevant to many funders’ missions, but it may not be a big part of their funding programmes. The involvement of more specialist foundations, who work specifically on legal advice, created a safe space for those who were new to the sector and wanted to contribute without the risk of duplication. 

All funders involved benefited from being more aware of what others were doing. Our collective knowledge gave us a good understanding of the sector, where our grants were going and where the gaps and opportunities were. This helped us to begin collating more consistent and complete data on the sector. Ultimately, we were able to distribute funding more strategically and make better-informed decisions - which meant more money going to where it was most needed.

The partnership’s credibility gave us greater leveraging power. We could secure more funding for the sector as a collective than we could have as individual organisations. As well as our own pooled funds, CJF brought in money from the National Lottery Community Fund and the Ministry of Justice. Frontline organisations tell us that, as independent funders, we have a role to play in championing the sector and the cause of legal advice. The collaborative allows us to speak with a single voice, which is something we’re looking to embed more in the next phase of the Fund.

A shift in gear

Our collaboration has shifted the way we do things forever. I don’t think we would ever go back to working in isolation now we know we can be more effective by working together and sharing expertise. Making application processes as simple as possible is another thing that feels important to continue as we move beyond emergency response. The cultural shift towards lighter-touch ways of working with our partners has been incredibly beneficial.

We are now developing our strategy for the next 10 years. We aim to develop a suitable funding mechanism for the delivery of advice, which is a huge job requiring a longer-term vision. This shift in gear has brought up new challenges with navigating different funders’ views on what to prioritise.

One thing we know is that we shouldn’t be making decisions separately from the advice sector itself. Having frontline agencies and sector bodies from across the UK on the fund's steering group was an important asset. We are reviewing our governance structures, trying to find a way to be genuinely inclusive, open and transparent, without this becoming onerous. Our new strategy will also focus on how we best articulate the importance of funding the sector. Data and learning will be key, helping demonstrate the added value of the collaborative to funders - whether they are already engaged or considering joining us. 

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