Free legal aid at Manchester's 'courageous' new law centre

People march past the Greater Manchester Law Centre
Image caption The centre is one of three in the ten Greater Manchester boroughs, alongside Bury and Rochdale

A top barrister praised a "courageous" new law centre offering free advice and campaigning for legal aid.

Michael Mansfield QC helped open the Greater Manchester Law Centre in Moss Side earlier.

Seven of the nine law centres in Greater Manchester shut after cuts of £350m to legal aid.

Patron Mr Mansfield said the centre was "courageous to stand out and say 'we're not going to allow this to happen, we want proper public funding'."

He said he was "very concerned" about the situation in Manchester and that demand for free and independent legal advice was growing but facilities were reducing.

The centre will be run by volunteers and solicitors working for free.

Image caption Actor Maxine Peake said at the launch it was "so important there are places like this" because "if not, how will people afford it?"

Following changes to legal aid in 2013, people can get funding for fewer types of civil proceeding.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the UK's legal aid system was "still one of the most generous in the world".

John Nicholson, chair of the centre, said: "We are fighting for a new generation of publicly funded social welfare lawyers... we're not just here to mask the severity of cuts and closures."

Another of the centre's patrons, Bolton actor Maxine Peake, said "access to free legal advice is as important as access to healthcare".

Image caption Michael Mansfield said it was essential people were able to receive advice "face-to-face"

Mr Mansfield was one of the founders of the law centre movement in the 1970s and has taken part in inquests involving accused IRA bombers, the Bloody Sunday incident, the Hillsborough disaster and the deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes and Diana, Princess of Wales.

He said: "The present situation is that it's very difficult to find anybody prepared to fight for this."

The government's view is people "can deal with all this on the internet and telephone" but "actually the core problems need face-to-face interviews," he said.

A major reform of the legal aid system, which would have slashed the number of law firms allowed to do criminal legal aid work at police stations and magistrates' courts, was scrapped in January.

An 8.75% cut to legal aid fees lawyers earn was also suspended for a year. Lawyers had claimed the reforms could damage quality and access to justice.

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