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Camden Community Law Centre at 45: ‘Expect queues out of the door after Brexit and Universal Credit roll-out’

PUBLISHED: 13:00 18 October 2018 | UPDATED: 18:10 18 October 2018

Sean Canning, director of the Camden Community Law Centre. Picture: Sam Volpe

Sean Canning, director of the Camden Community Law Centre. Picture: Sam Volpe

Archant

“With Universal Credit on one hand and Brexit causing uncertainty over immigration on the other, we’ll probably have queues out of the door.” That’s the warning from Sean Canning, director of the Camden Community Law Centre, as it celebrates its 45th birthday.

Protesters outside of Arlington House, the Camden hostel where health and safety issues led to protests and a legal fight. Picture: Camden Community Law CentreProtesters outside of Arlington House, the Camden hostel where health and safety issues led to protests and a legal fight. Picture: Camden Community Law Centre

With legal aid cuts biting, the expected surge in demand will see a challenging future at the Prince of Wales Road centre, but this is nothing new – since 1973 it has been helping ordinary people deal with housing, immigration and welfare problems.

Delays to Universal Credit payments could cause chaos, Sean explained, and as for Brexit, he told the Ham&High the new “settled status” process could see many EU immigrants in legal difficulties.

Sean said: “EU nationals are particularly concerned and uncertain. Many don’t know what the situation will be. No one’s told them.

“The current government position is they will be able to apply for ‘settled status’ if they have lived here five years, or when they reach that point. But what that means, and when the cut-off date is – that’s unclear.

Law centre staff with members of the Hopscotch Asian Women's Centre in the 1970s. Picture: Camden Community Law CentreLaw centre staff with members of the Hopscotch Asian Women's Centre in the 1970s. Picture: Camden Community Law Centre

“There will be a state of panic. It could be a bit like Windrush, with people slipping through the cracks in the years to come.”

Over the decades, Sean and his forebears have represented hundreds of Camden people facing crisis, and 2018 is no different.

Sean, who has been running the centre for five years, said: “Housing is and was always one of the biggest issues we face. We get 3,000 people through the doors a year, and we get 20 people in every weekly housing clinic, easily.

“Historically, the standard of private rental accommodation in the borough was very poor, and council housing stock has always been tight.

Mr Goodhew was reliant on the law centre in the 1980s after his home was ravaged by damp. Picture: Camden Community Law CentreMr Goodhew was reliant on the law centre in the 1980s after his home was ravaged by damp. Picture: Camden Community Law Centre

“Of course, now it’s been severely depleted by Right to Buy, which makes things tougher.”

Meanwhile, the plight of Windrush immigrants – brought to light in a national scandal – made depressingly familiar reading for staff at the centre.

In the early 1980s, changes to the rights of Commonwealth citizens kept its lawyers busy.

Sean said: “Back then, we had to deal with many Bangladeshi people who were hit by the loss of citizenship.”

In recent years, Sean cited the “hostile environment” as having added to the centre’s caseload.

“We had a flurry of Windrush cases,” he said, “although it’s died down a little. It’s a clear example of central government policy having huge unintended consequences and it impacting on people who have been living here their whole adult lives.”

He called out the right-to-rent policy of the “hostile environment”. “It’s effectively made landlords border agents, right?” he said. “And we’ve had issues with people unable to produce a passport.

“We are currently working on the case of a Georgian woman. She couldn’t produce her passport because, honestly, the Home Office had lost it when she sent it off to be renewed.”

Sean explained that, even though that woman won her case, by the end of it she was out of a home anyway as relations with her landlord had deteriorated.

The law centre is currently the driving force behind a judicial review slated for December over the “right to rent” rent policy.

It makes landlords liable for checking anyone they rent a property to can prove they have the right to live in the UK.

Sean said: “We have seen it again and again – people evicted who often just don’t understand what’s happening to them.

“We see lots of people who are in a state of flux.”

While the reasons people end up queueing outside the centre’s offices at 2, Prince of Wales Road in Kentish Town are largely the same as they were 45 years ago, the vicious circle of problems, Sean said, just gets worse.

“It’s 30 per cent debt and housing related.

“But the debt issues can lead to more housing issues, and in turn problems with employment and benefits.”

Helping clarify the workings of often arcane legal proceedings is part of the centre’s founding mission.

Sean explained: “The idea has always been making the law accessible to ordinary people.

“But that’s something that gets harder. There’s huge pressure on advice services caused by cuts and austerity, which has impacted legal aid disproportionately.

“That’s the one thing to get across. We’ve lost legal aid in immigration cases, employment and large areas of housing.

“Huge swaths of it have been cut.”

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