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Cross Street Law Centre head Kathy Smith says legal aid changes are forcing it to close
THE head of an Erith law centre says it is having to close because changes to legal aid have made it impossible to survive.
Cross Street Law Centre will shut its doors for the last time at the end of March after CEO Kathy Smith said its income had been slashed by 60 per cent.
She claims the centre’s woes started in April when the government sought to save £350m by withdrawing legal aid from certain types of actions including employment and the majority of welfare benefits and debt cases.
It is these areas in which Cross Street specialises, serving 1,500 clients a year for whom the centre secured £817,826 in 2013.
Ms Smith says the majority of these will now be denied legal representation as they won’t be able to afford the fees charged by private solicitors.
She told News Shopper: "We are going back to where it is only the rich and well off who get legal help and get justice - I just think that is appalling.
"I think it should be a right that you get access to justice.
"The people on benefits who have been wrongly turned down are going to struggle.
"It is the end of an era and it is very sad."
The business opened in 2006 and has already made two redundancies with three more paid staff and six volunteers set to go.
A grant from Bexley Council paying one worker’s salary runs out in June and no more funds are forthcoming.
A Bexley Council spokeswoman said: “The Cross Street Law Centre has been affected by the national changes in the legal aid budget.
“The council funded a two year project at the Cross Street Law Centre that involved working with Carers Support to help carers and individuals access the support they may be entitled to.
“The project helped to train volunteers to provide advice and representation. The project comes to an end in June 2014.
“The council is now working with advice agencies across the borough and the Bexley Voluntary Service Council to look at how we can continue to ensure that people can access advice across the borough.”
Erith and Thamesmead MP Teresa Pearce branded the closure a “tragedy”.
She said: "The law centre has been a longstanding resource for disadvantaged people, offering them free and independent legal advice when needed most.
“The staff are exceptional and have been trying to keep the law centre open on a shoestring.
"But it seems with the funding cuts they will have no option but to close their doors leaving many, many people without access to legal advice and therefore without access to justice.”
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