Fighting for justice for Blackpool residents denied access to the law

For some people, access to professional legal advice is a far off dream.

Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 2:19 pm
Updated Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 2:23 pm

They fear just crossing the threshold of a solicitor’s office will trigger costly fees they cannot pay.

But such a situation leaves many people exposed to exploitation by those who will take advantage of their vulnerability.

It was for this reason the Fylde Coast Advice and Legal Centre was formed in 2017 by legal executive Ron Heywood.

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Ron Heywood (far right) with members of the team at the Fylde Coast Advice and Legal Centre

He recognised that for many people, using the law to get what they had a right to was out of the question.

Four years on, and despite the disruptions of Covid, the centre is now operating from new offices on Church Street and casework is rising (there were 45 calls in a single day recently).

It has been boosted this year thanks to awards of £70,000 from the government’s Civil Justice Fund and around £43,000 from the National Lottery.

But while these grants have helped and the team also uses legal aid, the centre needs more financial support if it is to continue its work which includes advice on housing, benefits, employment rights and debt, as well as campaigning for social policy reform.

While the CAB (Citizens Advice Bureau) offers some similar support, the centre is the only specialist legal advice centre in Blackpool.

Ron said: “We could see a need due to high levels of poverty, and it wasn’t just advice that was needed but more positive legal help.

“We have been particularly concerned to help people with housing problems as it’s very common for people in the private rented sector in Blackpool not to know their rights and illegal evictions are common.

“Often people are living in very poor conditions and there are a lot of horror stories.

“We had someone who was living in accommodation where there was black mould on the walls, and they were told by the landlord it was because they were having too many baths.

“Another tenant was telephoned by his landlord at work and told, don’t come back as I’ve evicted you.

“We got an injunction to get him back in, but the landlord refused as he had already put new tenants in.”

Unfair dismissal is another area where the centre helps people fight back, and Ron says rogue employers and landlords act illegally because they know many people do not have the power to retaliate.

But he says: “We provide a gateway to justice and ensure equality of access to the law. We ensure people have a fair fight.”

Lawyer Christina Warwick joined the centre because she wanted to help vulnerable people.

She said: “Solicitors first ask ‘how can you pay’, whereas we ask ‘how can we help you’.

“I took the conscious decision of instead of helping people with the biggest pockets, helping the people in real need and it’s a refreshing change.

“Even if we don’t win per se, it’s about ensuring a fair outcome rather than seeing someone just being walked all over.”

Also helping the centre is Coun Martin Mitchell, who uses his experience as a former housing officer and provides link to the council’s enforcement services.

He said: “Some private accommodation in Blackpool is below decent standards and we vigorously pursue disrepair cases.

“We work in partnership with the council so that in the very worst cases landlords face action from housing enforcement officers and through the courts.”

But perhaps it is volunteer Amanda Williamson who witnesses the biggest difference the service is making.

She started helping out by answering phones and offering a reception service after receiving help from the team herself.

Now she says: “The biggest satisfaction is seeing someone who has walked in here in tears, walking out smiling because of how we have helped them.”

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