Last month, Govan Law Centre hosted an event to celebrate our first 25 years. In this time, GLC has grown from a wee shop front in Govan to an organisation employing 28 staff and having offices based in Orkney Street, Govan and Samaritan House in Govanhill.
Our many funders have allowed us to develop our services from the original area of Govan to cover the whole of Scotland in some instances. They have also supported our ambition to provide services to those living in remote areas, with our virtual law centre currently assisting those in Argyll & Bute.
In my opinion, law centres are not only essential community assets providing access to justice but are also vital in campaigning for greater social justice. Anyone can go from stability to insecurity in a heartbeat; from a having a home to becoming homeless.
It would be wonderful to report that the need for law centres has diminished in the last 25 years. Unfortunately, in our experience, the opposite is the reality – in the last year we have opened more than 3,000 new cases. The last 10 years of “austerity” have had a devastating effect on our client group.
The impact of universal credit, benefit sanctions and zero hours contracts has destroyed the safety nets in our society. These political decisions have resulted in unemployment, poverty, discrimination, poor housing and destitution. The acknowledged rise in the number of rough sleepers is indicative of the current political landscape, with funding to support services being cut at a time when assistance is vital to save lives.
To exacerbate this situation, we now face the chilling spectre of proposed restrictions on the Human Rights Act and the ability of the courts to enforce the rule of law. There has never been a more important time to stand up for the rights of people who need them most.
The need for neighbourhood law centres grew out of the American radical lawyers’ movement that supported the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The first law centre in the UK was North Kensington Law Centre (NKLC), which opened its doors in 1970. All law centres have to adapt quickly to the circumstances of society – for example, NKLC provided daily support and help to the local community in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster.
In 2019, GLC required to step in and support those without recourse to public funds threatened with lock changes by Serco. GLC led the way in the defence of this client group, lodging cases within the Court of Session to prevent eviction. We are currently applying for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court on behalf of one of our clients.
It is recognised that, as a law centre, our duty is not only to our clients but also to wider society, by influencing policies and providing support to those outwith our funded projects.
GLC has been involved in drafting legislation for the Scottish Parliament since the latter’s inception 20 years ago. This includes the Abolition of Poindings and Warrant Sales Act, School Meals (Scotland) Bill, Breastfeeding (Scotland) Act and Property Factors (Scotland) Act. Many bills were supported by a cross-party group and acted as a catalyst for radical reform in the area of debt and money advice.
In Govan we pioneered self-help free toolkits. Our first experience was providing bank charge refund letters online in 2004, and within a year more than 1 million letters had been downloaded for free. The campaign went viral across the UK in 2005, and the engine room was Govan. The campaign helped get £1.7 billion refunded to consumers across the UK, free of charge. We were acting in cases across Scotland and England, working with an English QC and a team of volunteers.
Other successful toolkits include the Payday Loan Survival Guide and the Bedroom Tax Toolkit. There are too many campaigns to mention here, but all are designed to provide the biggest impact to support the people of Scotland.
So, here’s to the next 25 years! Our work is ongoing, but would be unsustainable without the support of our staff and all our funders.
Mike Dailly, principal solicitor, Govan Law Centre, and solicitor advocate