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Ensuring access to rights for everyone

Special Interest Programme / Partner story

Photo by Cristina Serí on Unsplash

In the United Kingdom, local authorities have a duty to provide social care for people with assessed and eligible needs, in their areas of responsibility. For example, local authorities should ensure that older people get support with washing and cooking, that people with learning disabilities can manage their finances well, and that people with sight and hearing impairments are helped to safely get out of their homes and into the community to make friends.

However, austerity measures in the UK have resulted in local authority funding being cut by nearly 60 per cent[1], and as a result, care is being denied to people in need. In addition, the number of new community care cases opened by lawyers has decreased by 84 per cent over the last decade[2].

The Legal Network is an initiative aimed at helping people get the social care that they have the right to. By offering access to legal aid for those who cannot pay for it, the Legal Network empowers careworkers to help families identify when they can be helped by a legal expert. “Local authorities unfortunately can act with impunity unless people can access a lawyer. Without access to justice, the rights might as well not exist,” says Kari Gerstheimer, director of The Legal Network. “But if we can encourage care workers to pick up the phone and speak to our legal team about an issue, then we know that we can help people.”

This feeling of ‘lacking rights’ is exactly what the family of Jonathon Bowen, a 31-year-old born with cerebral palsy and severe learning difficulties, experienced this past year. After Jonathon’s father passed away last November, his mother and brother began trying to get support from social services to help care for him.

However, after three agencies couldn’t meet the family’s needs, social services told Jonathon’s brother Matthew that they had tried everyone they could and were unable to find a suitable care provider. It wasn’t until Matthew rang the legal advice line that he learned that the authorities were in fact obligated to find a way of providing care for Jonathon, which they duly did, once the Legal Network got involved.

“The Legal Network is really important because there is a huge range of problems that can crop up, and some of them will have really simple solutions if you know what the law is and if you know what the guidance is and if you know what the judges have said,” says Victoria Butler-Cole, Barrister at 39 Essex Chambers.

In addition, the Legal Network gathers data in order to influence better decision making and system change. Thus, the Legal Network is instilling hope in care workers and raising the spirits of vulnerable people and their families. “With our team of lawyers and with the managers working on the frontlines who have contact with families and individuals who are experiencing unlawful decision making and unlawful delays, we know we can make a difference together. We know that we can make sure that people’s rights are enforced,” says Kari.

The Legal Network is funded under our Special Interest Programme. This Programme reflects the Trustees’ interests in making dynamic, diverse, large, innovative and challenging grants. Special Interest grants cover a wide range of fields, including health, humanitarian relief, education and the arts. Learn more about its strategy here.

Do you want to find out more about the Legal Network? Go to our online annual report to watch the video!

[1] Local government funding, moving the conversation on, uk/sites/default/files/documents/5.40_01_Finance%20publication_WEB_0.pdf (Accessed 04-02-2020)

[2] Threipland C, A missed opportunity to confront the access to justice crisis, 9.02.2020, (Accessed 04-02-2020)