The Community Justice Fund
Each day thousands of people find themselves thrown into crisis. They could be facing homelessness, be unable to afford food for themselves and their families, have lost their jobs, or risk being deported, or all too frequently a combination of these things. The systems and institutions that exist to ensure that no person in this country is homeless, or starving, or at risk of harm, have failed them. Too many people find themselves unable to get the help that they deserve, that is their right, because the processes they have to navigate are too complex, unwieldy, and sometimes simply too broken for them to face on their own. For these people the only way that they can achieve social justice is with the support of free legal advice services.
Every year these services stop tens of thousands of people becoming homeless, return over £100 million in benefits that have been unfairly or incorrectly denied, ensure safety from abusive relationships, and offer protection against unscrupulous employers. Advice services are frontline organisations, embedded in their local communities. Working with a wide range of partners and referral agencies they use the law as a tool to help both to solve existing problems and also to prevent future issues arising. For many people they offer the last chance for justice when everything else has failed. Although the law is at the heart of their work, legal aid is only available for a limited proportion of the support they provide. In order to survive they are forced to rely upon a patchwork of grants from local authorities and foundations and private donations.
The impact of COVID-19 upon legal advice services has been threefold:
- The suspension of court hearings has removed legal aid income, a small, yet vital, revenue stream for many advice services. Additionally many of the traditional fundraising activities they carry out have been forced to stop.
- Operations have had to be transitioned from working with clients face-to-face to supporting them remotely.
- The demand for their services has increased hugely. Some centres are already reporting 100%+ increases in clients seeking advice, particularly with respect to employment and welfare benefits issues.
The need for these organisations has never been greater than it is today, yet they are facing the greatest existential crisis in their history.
How the Community Justice Fund Works
The Community Justice Fund was established at the start of the COVID-19 crisis as a joint initiative between the umbrella bodies for the advice sector (Advice UK, Law Centres Network and Citizens Advice), and a group of independent funders (the AB Charitable Trust, Access to Justice Foundation, Indigo Trust, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, The Legal Education Foundation and Therium Access) to help specialist social welfare legal advice organisations cope with the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and lay the foundations for longer-term renewal.
The fund is overseen by a steering group made up of representatives from the umbrella bodies, funders, and front-line organisations. Through support from the member foundations and contributions from other funders, including £5.4m from the Ministry of Justice and £5m from The National Lottery Community Fund, the Community Justice made grants totalling over £11.5m to 176 organisations in its first funding wave.
By collaborating the funders were able to create a single, simple, application process for grantees removing the need for multiple different applications to a range of funding organisations. By working in concert the funders were able to look strategically at the funding needs of the sector across the whole country and work to ensure that the funds were spent as effectively as possible in the support of clients. As one grantee commented:
This was one of the best and most unique things about this funding opportunity. We were able to openly and honestly discuss our need. You listened, respected our experience and expertise, and as a result we didn't feel any pressure. Rather we applied for what would make the biggest difference to our organisation during these difficult times, which ultimately will make the grant as effective as it can be.
The benefits of collaboration were felt by the funders, as well as the grantees, as Paul Lenz from the Indigo Trust notes:
Being part of the Community Justice Fund has enabled us to achieve vastly more impact than we would had we been working in isolation. By working together we were not only able to secure more funds for the sector, through sharing knowledge and experience we were able to act far more strategically and make better, fairer, decisions very efficiently.
What we want to achieve
As we begin fundraising for our second wave, we are keen that our goals are not limited to mitigating the impacts of the current crisis. To that then we are focusing on three broad objectives:
The legal advice sector was poorly funded even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Our first goal is to ensure that none of the hugely impactful organisations who support clients day in and day out fail for want of money during this crucial time. Significant futher funding is needed in 2021 simply to ensure that all of the organisations can keep their doors open without dramatically cutting their vital services.
Growth and Renewal
The pandemic has already created a cohort of new people desperately in need of legal advice services, and this group will only increase in the weeks and months to come. We want to enable advice services to grow to meet these needs. Growth without continued support is, however, a recipe for disaster. By increasing the cost-bases of these organisations we are duty bound to work together to ensure that there is sufficient, sustainable, income for advice services for years to come. In tandem with this we want to help them become even more effective and efficient through supporting them in updating systems and processes and sharing best-in-class practices across the sector.
If supporting someone through the legal processes that enable them to receive the support that is rightfully theirs can be considered a “victory”, then it is something of a pyrrhic one. It is a victory that has come at a cost, not simply in terms of the time and resources of the agency providing the support, but also the physical and mental health of the client themselves, and the cost to the public purse in dealing with disputes that result from poor decision making and process failures. The costs of these victories are ultimately costs of failure. Failure in the systems that cause harm to the very people they should be helping. In the short-term we have to address the effects of these failures, but in the longer term we must address their causes
The Community Justice Fund is seeking to build a coalition of social justice stakeholders from the fields of homelessness, poverty, violence against women and girls, asylum and immigration, disability rights, mental health, and children and young people, to work in concert providing the resources and bringing pressure to bear to fix the problems in our systems of government. To that end we are keen to hear from any and all funders who work in these fields willing to contribute their voices and their time to address these systemic injustices.
This movement for change will only succeed if the agency, experiences, perceptions, and talents of people whose lives are impacted by injustices shape and drive our work. We will strive to ensure that we work closely with them rather than for them.
To get involved or to find out more please contact email@example.com
Case Study: “David”
David (not his real name) began to feel ill about six months ago. Initially the symptoms were mild but they soon began to affect his vision and appetite. Despite having never taken time off work with sickness before, when David said that he couldn’t do his job because of his vision problems, and needed some time off sick, he was sacked. Without a job, he had no income, couldn’t keep up the payments on his car and so lost his independence. He also fell behind on his rent and became fearful that his landlord would evict him – to the extent that he stopped opening the letters from his landlord for fear of what they might contain. Meanwhile a scan revealed that he had inoperable cancer, and he started radiotherapy which he went through without care assistance with his bills continuing to mount up.
David’s experience highlights a whole series of issues that have a legal basis and where law could have helped him. Employment – unlawful treatment by his employer. Finances – access to income he is entitled to that could have helped meet his needs and to pay bills. Housing – his rights as a tenant. Care – planning for his future. Not getting access to this help caused or exacerbated a whole series of issues nothing to do with the law – anxiety, insomnia, increased vulnerability, dependence, and had impacts on many areas of his life - social, economic and health.
Experiences like David’s are shared by literally millions of others, and they have been intensified by Covid-19. Issues, which may not present as legal or even be recognised as such by people themselves, or those who are trying to support them.
Law cannot solve all these issues, but without access to it people miss out on a key set of tools and strategies that can deliver help across a range of vital areas: income security, housing and property security, employment protection, education protection, access to family, certainty of immigration status, protection from discrimination, protection from abuse, and access to care.