London law centre to offer more support to vulnerable clients via crime contract

updated on 21 September 2022

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Harrow Law Centre (HLC), set up in 2010, has taken an unusual step and bid for a criminal legal aid contract and, as such, will now be able to offer greater support to its vulnerable clients.

Three years ago, the law centre became the first to establish a Victims of Crime project, which was driven by the experiences of its clients, particularly those who’d experienced hate crime or sexual assault and felt they’d been failed by the statutory authorities.

Pamela Fitzpatrick, HLC’s director, told the Law Gazette that the centre had grown in civil areas such as housing, immigration and welfare benefits, but more recently had noticed an increasing number of clients who are victims of crime or at risk of being wrongly criminalised.

In the early months of the covid-19 lockdown, the centre reported an increase in clients contacting them regarding ‘stop and search’ related issues. These ‘stop and search’ incidents caused tension between residents of the diverse community and the police. In response, the centre worked with a local community group to hold sessions on what individuals should do and how they should behave if they’re stopped and searched.

This is part of the centre's ongoing work towards creating holistic support for young people in the community. Citing regular issues, Fitzpatrick explained that many of the centre’s clients who have been accused of benefit fraud are struggling single parents or have mental health issues.

In the past, the centre would have to send its clients to law firms that offered criminal legal aid, however, this has become increasingly challenging as the number of legal aid providers decreases. When its crime contract begins in October 2022, the HLC will be able to support clients with “poverty-related criminal law matters”.

Fitzpatrick described the crime contract as part of a “natural progression” and hopes that more law centres will bid for criminal legal aid work in the next procurement round, stating, “law centres have a particular way of dealing with people, being rooted within the community. We’re trusted in many ways”.

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