UCL’s Centre for Access to Justice (CAJ) is continuing to offer free legal advice on social welfare issues to ensure that vulnerable adults have a lifeline of support throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Centre was set up by Professor Dame Hazel Genn in 2013 to ensure that vulnerable groups have access to critical services and support that they need and to which they are legally entitled.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the CAJ team has transformed its legal advice clinic into a remote service, offering skype, WhatsApp video and telephone appointments for people who require specialist legal advice. It is also dealing with many of its enquiries over email.
The service, based in Stratford, Newham, is run by qualified solicitors and in normal times is supported by students from UCL’s Faculty of Laws. It offers free, independent and confidential legal advice and representation, specialising in welfare, housing and education, while also offering one-off advice on family law matters.
Professor Genn, Executive Director of UCL’s Centre for Access to Justice, is recognised internationally as a leading authority on access to justice. Her prize winning scholarship focuses on the experiences of ordinary people caught up in legal problems and the responsiveness of the justice system to the needs of citizens.
Commenting on the Centre’s work during the crisis, Professor Genn said: "Covid-19 does not respect social boundaries and the measures to control its spread have already had a profound impact on people’s income, social security, and health.
"The lockdown disproportionately affects those already on low incomes, in poor housing and experiencing mental health challenges. There are children that have been wrenched out of education for whom schools were a safe haven. And overnight a population of newly and unexpectedly vulnerable citizens has emerged through loss of livelihood and fears for basic security of food and home.
"Our free social welfare legal advice clinic remains open, so that we can provide a vital lifeline to many of those people, helping them navigate the devastating impact of Covid-19."
Prior to lockdown, the Centre was seeing local clients daily with an active caseload of around 150, with many referrals coming in via doctors, other advice agencies, and word of mouth.
The clinic continues to receive a steady stream of new enquiries, with most of those coming in from internet searches.
Among some of the important work the team has already carried out includes helping to reinstate a care package for a family with a disabled child who had all respite care stopped, and securing financial support for a care leaver who had run out of food during the lockdown.
The clinic is continuing to support all their existing clients, as well as assisting new enquiries, many of whom have had their lives and financial positions severely affected by the pandemic.
Rachel Knowles, Head of Legal Practice at UCL’s Centre for Access to Justice, said: "The clinic team are working hard to maintain a quality service for our clients, and we are using technology creatively where possible. However, more than ever, this pandemic has demonstrated that for many of those who are most in need of our services, there is no replacement for face to face contact and advice.
"Whilst this pandemic affects all of us, it once again highlights the challenges faced by the most vulnerable in our community whose rights are threatened or potentially undermined by new coronavirus related legislation and guidance that is being published and updated frequently. It is important to prevent a health crisis causing further access to justice issues, and our team is working hard to challenge decisions and protect the rights of society’s most vulnerable"
There is an overwhelming amount of information available online, and to help people living in Newham access information about their rights during the pandemic, the team has pulled together various resources into a one-stop guide: Your rights during the Coronavirus Pandemic.
The CAJ team has also been keeping an eye on emergency measures brought in by the government since the lockdown, to ensure they are lawful and legitimate.
The team has already challenged the government on new guidance for local authorities, which relaxes their statutory duties for children’s social care, which has the potential to put vulnerable children at even greater risk. As a result the government has agreed to update its guidance.
Legal aid has undergone significant cuts in the past decade and UCL’s legal advice clinic is currently the only university advice clinic with a legal aid contract. It remains committed to providing a high quality service to the local community in Newham at a time when some other university clinics have had to close down their services entirely.