Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Jungle

And so to the Gee Street Court House for my stint as Duty Solicitor, to represent any tenant without a lawyer in the undefended possession list. A list where sometimes there are as little as five minutes a case for the District Judges to decide on who must stay, and who must go, and will live to fight another day.

Alberta has an eviction listed in two hours. A single parent who has had serious abdominal surgery this summer, she has been advised to come off her Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). She is then failed for ESA, told to go back to JSA, then promptly advised by benefit officers to reclaim ESA- which is again refused, apparently when she was having surgery.

The Judge stays the warrant for 2 months.

Bea was rehoused after being shot twice. She used to work with young offenders, more recently as a teaching assistant through an agency. Her income is unstable and in school holidays she is forced to claim Universal Credit. The shiny new benefit that insists on sending you your Housing Benefit (HB) directly to you, not your landlord, every month not every week. The theory is that people with proper jobs get paid monthly and this will teach Bea proper budgeting skills. Yet hers is a weekly tenancy and she is paid by the week, when there is work.

“I wish I had never claimed Universal Credit “ says Bea, who offers to cash in her pension.
Judge and Housing Officer feel sorry and embarassed and case is adjourned generally on payment of rent plus 5 pounds a week. As she leaves, Bea promises to pay off her arrears once the compensation for her injuries arrives- should it arrive.

Charlie worked as bartender and a cashier, always on the edge. He fell apart after he was assaulted and has just gone onto sickness benefits. After waiting for 3 hours he finally has to leave due to an anxiety attack. His housing officer is late and apologetic. There has been a screw-up at head office.
The housing officer agrees to adjourn the hearing for 2 weeks while Housing Benefit adjusts to Charlie’s recently awarded ESA. While we wait to get on he tells me that he is in despair, because the new Housing Act is the death knell for social housing.

Feeling mildly cheerful at only 3 cases I jump on the 55 bus and head back to the office. The sun is up, the air is clear, what could possibly go wrong?

Then I am hit by a blizzard of homelessness.

Danny has lived for years in a fog of mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence. Every time she has a kid the Council takes the child away. Incredibly, the Council does not think she is vulnerable, so she will be on the street tomorrow. Time to get a Judicial Review cranked up.

Eddy, who is almost 60, interrupts me. She has had a thyroid removed, is diabetic, but does not yet inject insulin, hears voices and is long term depressed. She is on ESA, a fairly stringent benefit that tests functional impairment. The Council says she is not vulnerable, and she will be on the streets quite soon.

Freda is a single mum who has recently given birth. As a European she is required to work to claim Tax Credits and housing. Yet despite her best efforts her zero hours contracts fail to give her the paperwork the Council wants to verify her activities, so she and her baby will be homeless on Friday.

Gary and his family were evicted the day before yesterday. He suffers from mental illness and relies on local services. His kids are in local schools. Yet the emergency accommodation offered is outside London. Terrified of being uprooted, he refuses. The Council appears to have closed his case and will do nothing more to help. The Supreme Court says this is the wrong approach, yet it happens every day.

Helga was found intentionally homeless when she realised that her landlord was going to have her home repossessed because he could not keep up with the mortgage.  She kept the rent moneys so that she could rent somewhere else but could not find a landlord prepared to help benefit claimants, even with the nest egg. She is worried that social workers will take her kid into care in 5 days time because she is homeless.

India left care and started to work in various nurseries. Tragically this success story foundered when due to the various changes in her jobs, the long hours, the delayed HB assessments, she lost the plot, had a nervous breakdown, fell into rent arrears and was evicted. Having been found intentionally homeless by the Council, she may risk her own child being taken into care. She will be homeless in the next few days also.

Jamil worked 30 years in Sainsbury’s and then became too ill to carry on. He’s 60 with various ailments, high blood pressure, depression. He paid into the system all his life and did nothing wrong. Not vulnerable enough it seems. Yet, at the last minute, the Council offers him sheltered housing. Problem is, the offer hasn’t come though yet, and his temporary accommodation was terminated yesterday.

As I foolishly wander by reception Kerry grabs me. Her marital home was sold 8 years ago after mortgage arrears arose, but there was substantial equity left after the mortgage was paid off. She has been homeless, she tells me, for those 8 years because the lending Company have tied her up with paperwork ever since.

All in one damn day. At this point my brain shuts down and I have to leave the rest of the alphabet until tomorrow.

What conclusions can be drawn from a single day?

Is it that I hate the various Councils who have made palpably inhumane decisions about the vulnerability of sick people and are prepared to put them on the streets? Not really. Funding cuts mean there are fewer people working in those Councils, and diminishing properties in London for people of little means. Yet I wish that the wealthier leafy suburbs of West London would stop dumping poor people in East London, abnegating all responsibility, and then turning to their voters with a big smile and telling their voters that the reason that they have lower Council Tax is that they are more efficient. More efficient at turning a blind eye to the disabled, perhaps.

Is it that there are more evictions and more homeless problems but less lawyer to help? Yes. The Legal Aid cuts have meant that in every single one of the cases that I have mentioned a loss of service for people with money problems have pushed the household into homelessness. Yet even though Legal Aid is still there to prevent the roof over your head, fewer lawyers want to do it. The warhorses retire. The colts shy away.

Is it that poor people and people of modest means are being forced out of London? Yes. Those of you who believe that this is healthy expression of the free market, consider. Where will the bartenders and cleaners you rely on live? When you have a stroke, who will change your bedpan?

Is it that Universal Credit is the panacea? No. The machinery so far has transferred HB applications to the Department of Work and Pensions, who have lost every letter that I have written. This does not look promising.

Is it that the Housing Act will fundamentally wreck social housing? Yes. Council Housing will be decimated, which is an expression that is almost always used wrongly. Think 10% of Council Stock being sold off every year without any replacements for those who need homes.

Am I in despair? No.

Against all the odds, with 3 solicitors leaving and awaiting replacements, with our debt adviser breaking his leg at our front door, with our administrator Bella injuring her knee collecting the DX, we have something special.

We have the volunteers. Angharad who was hit by a car on her way to issue a Judicial Review, but issued. Justin, who helped us win 3 asylum cases in one day. Aniko, who persuaded the Council not to call the police when Mrs Angry came to discuss her rent arrears, then got at 3,000 backdated benefit claim. Onuka, who holds the fort.

Welcome to London, the most affluent city on Earth. Welcome to the Jungle.




Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Xenophobia

Basil came to the UK as an unaccompanied minor from Jamaica, fleeing death threats because of his sexuality. He claims asylum, which is his legal right.

Betty is the mother and sole carer of a British child, who is deserted by his British father. She asks the Home Office to recognise her leave to remain and care for her son, which is her legal right.

Basil is taken into care by Social Services and is granted leave to remain until his 18th birthday. Before his leave expires he applies again, but it takes 10 years for his application to be dealt with.

Betty receives a letter after 1 year telling her that the registration of her legal right to reside is being considered. Prospective employers are told that this letter means that Betty is maybe entitled to work, but it would be best to ring a hotline just in case, and anyway the letter expires after 6 months.

Basil has the right to claim benefits, but not to work. He also has the right to medical treatment. The former right is not observed and he loses benefits for 18 months because he cannot produce documents that are at the Home Office. He becomes economically reliant on sugar daddies or goes on the game, depending on your perspective. In his shoes I might do the same.

After a while Basil learns that he has HIV.

After taking the letter from the Home Office to employment agencies Betty learns that no one wants to know.

Employers face fines if they hire someone without proper legal documents. With 25 people chasing every job vacancy in Hackney, why should a betting shop (Hackney's growth industry) hire a single mum like Betty? Let alone a single mum with an official letter which says the Home Office has doubts about her right to work?

Basil can't get a GP because his papers are at the Home Office. I provide a solicitors letter. Hell, I go to the GP in person with a letter I have signed. He can't get GP treatment because no-one understands the paperwork. The GP receptionist tells me that she can't make exceptions and she needs something more official than a letter from a solicitor (with a solicitor attached). 

And here's the point. Today Basil has the rights to benefits and healthcare, and Betty has the right to work to support her British son. Yet even so they can't persuade anyone of this right. Even with a solicitor's letter. 

Tomorrow landlords will have a legal duty to ensure that before they grant a tenancy to Basil or Betty they check that they are legally in the country. Yet how will they know? Perhaps they can call the Law Centre.

Whoops.

Tomorrow there will be no Legal Aid for Basil and Betty until we know they have the right immigration papers. And as legal aid for immigration has cut us to just one lawyer, we will be less and less able to know.

The new Immigration Bill enforces strict immigration papers screening of tenants and patients. The new Legal Aid rules will stop us from stopping the cases where tenants are illegally evicted, and sick human beings are denied medical help.

Some of you will read this and feel a surge of delight. Here's to you Johnny Foreigner! Well done.

But consider. How am I supposed to verify that a white cockney with no passport and no driving license is British before I give her advice on preventing the loss of her home? No papers no help love, on to the street with you.

May I suggest that we should either have a reliable system to identify those who are entitled to state support or else have a system where those who don't qualify can wear this loud and clear. Perhaps a yellow star, perhaps a pink triangle.

At best these changes are xenophobic. At worst racist. I hope somewhere out there is listening. 









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Friday, 23 May 2014

Interns


Being young in the real legal profession (social welfare law) must be a lot like being young elsewhere in the UK at the moment. The chances are that you haven't got a job, are scrabbling by you fingernails to survive and, to add insult to injury, increasingly you are expected to do unpaid internships just to fill gaps in your CV so that you can get a paying job at some dim and distant point on the horizon.

You will probably have huge debts from putting yourself through university, then law school. As many members of the admirable group Young Legal Aid Lawyers have recently said (find them here http://www.younglegalaidlawyers.org/), it's actually quite insulting to be expected to make money for the firm where you have achieved a placement, without being paid anything for your time.

I respect that. The labourer is worthy of his or her hire.

At worst interns are stuck at the photocopier doing a minimum wage job without a minimum wage. At best you take witness statements, produce bundles for hearings, sit on the phone to speak to benefit call centres or the Legal Aid Agency (actually, that's one of the worst tasks) but you're struggling to survive in London.

Unpaid internships are cheap for employers. There is good anecdotal evidence that they perpetuate the success of the economically privileged . Only those who have family who can support them can make it through the lean years when you're starting as a lawyer. Doh!

Let me nevertheless ask you to consider volunteering at Hackney Community Law Centre for a 3 month internship, or suggesting this to someone else who might be at a loose end. You can find the details here. http://www.hclc.org.uk/2014/05/were-recruiting-3-new-interns/

The reason we are asking you to volunteer for 4 days a week with an expense allowance of only £80 (currently unsponsored) is that we bloody need you. Actually, Hackney and east London needs you. I'm going to put on my Kitchener moustache.

The benefits cuts that we have seen in the last 2 years are as savage as I have seen in 20 years of practice. The levels of need are higher than I can remember. Colleagues who have been in the game for 40 years or more agree that there is something serious going on.

After all, there is a reason that numbers of people relying on food banks has shot into the stratosphere.

We want you to help families who have been stranded in this country with the wrong immigration papers so that children in our schools can eat properly.

We want you to help really disabled people who lose their sickness benefits win on appeal at a benefits tribunal. 40% win anyway, 68% win with your help.

We want you to help the homeless mum we saw today who, due to a Council error (they lost the benefits form) has to take her disabled son out of special needs school when she is made homeless and placed in emergency accommodation out of London. Exporting London's poor is no solution to a kinder future.

We want you to help fight race claims when an employer is racist, sex claims when an employer is sexist or homophobic, and we recognise that many worship their religion in loving kindness and should be allowed to do so for all our sake.

Law Centres are voluntary organisations. We do have salaried staff, but without volunteers we would lose a reason to exist and would struggle to survive. I want to thank two of our volunteer interns for the important work that they have done for us recently.

Erwin helped a client obtain a backpayment of Housing Benefit covering seven months. It is possible that thanks to his hard work a family of 4 may keep its home. Shame legal aid for benefits has been all but abolished. 

Ishaq helped Hilton and this week 2 clients were recognised as refugees. You wait forever for a bus and then 3 arrive. I'll be disappointed if we don't get a third victory soon. Shame that immigration legal aid has been cut to the bone.

Frankly, we're tilting at windmills. Please come and tilt at our windmills. If no-one is prepared to try, we will be a smaller and meaner society. And while you're at it, please celebrate all our wonderful volunteers.

Be our intern. Make a difference. 



















Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Legless

When he was on patrol in Iraq Ryan stepped on the landmine that blew his leg off.

Five years down the line he has courage, but his brain is a mess. His spine is screwed up. He doesn't sleep much, he wakes up shaking. In the wee small hours of the morning he is alone.

A stump on a leg is sore long after the event. You get itching, you get bleeding. In hot weather like we've been having in Hackney the problem is worse. In winter not so bad. Ryan doesn't like to go out without his leg on, as people stare, and most days he uses crutches.

He is refused Disability Living Allowance (DLA) after an examination by a Jobcentre doctor. One of the reasons is that the doctor notes he could use a wheelchair to get about. The Jobcentre tells him to use a wheelchair and stop being so silly.

A year after Ryan's claim for DLA is refused he gets a Tribunal hearing. After half an hour he is awarded the highest possible level of benefit.

The day afterwards Ryan's application for Employment Support Allowance is refused. He gets 0 points. He needs 15. The Jobcentre still believes that if he used wheelchair and stopped being a big Nelly he could get a job. Even though in Hackney at least 25 people are chasing every job. 

We send off another appeal.

Shortly afterwards Ryan's Housing Benefit is suspended, and he receives a Notice to Quit.

Ryan chooses to walk on a false leg, because he wishes to walk on two legs- he's trying to be normal. He gave up his youth for a fight in a far away land that felt inevitable to him at the time, but the friends of his childhood are dead or broken now. What he needs now is a chance to hang on to his dignity.

I can't help wondering whether the reason that Private Ryan has fared so badly in our benefits system is that his name is is really Private Hassan, who served in our wars with our allies, but not our own armed forces.

In other news Legal Aid has been cut for benefit appeals by 99%. Best to sweep all that under the carpet.


  

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Rain Homeless Babies


Angela was turned out of her hostel by social services on a Friday last autumn with her baby of 6 months. The skies in Homerton opened and water fell like bullets in Clapton Pond, and they were on the street.

No-one from the Council would help because Angela doesn't have all the right immigration documents. With a name like Angela, she might be Eastern European (gasp).

Angela's baby is a British citizen, but he doesn't know it yet- bless. He's a happy fellow. He doesn't know he's homeless. He will soon.

My heart sank on Friday evening when I realised we had to go to Court.

24 hours a day, 365 days a year there is a Judge available, if necessary at the end of a phone, to deal with truly urgent cases. Cases like this where you called night-time social services already and they refused to help.

Like a Valkyrie Counsel swoops in, and we start a Judicial Review.

Near midnight a Court Order arrived telling the Council to put a roof over the head of a young mother and her homeless baby over the weekend.

It's the white horse moment. We have a magic piece of paper and by one mother and child are in an emergency hostel. The accommodation is extremely basic (no bedding), but we saved a family from the street for 48 hours.

In 48 hours Angela can talk to a social worker, visit her GP. Commons sense can prevail. By Monday it has, and the Council agrees to review its decision.

After 4 months of grumbling and wrangling the Council agrees that a destitute nursing mother with a young child should be helped until she can get on her feet again and get a job. Blindingly obvious really.

There is something that feels like common sense about a legal system that will protect very young children against the vagaries of Town Hall bureaucracy. Social workers and housing officers aren't evil, mostly they're people doing their best at a time when cuts mean that the safety nets are stretched to tissue paper.

Today Angela's family got the break it needed.

Tomorrow Legal Aid cuts would stop the Judge from stepping in. Cuts to Judicial Review will leave Town Hall unchallenged. The residency test won't protect those who have been in the UK for less than a year.

And  then we will see the hard rain. 





Monday, 21 October 2013

Numbers

At 10:45 Jim will be evicted. The minute hand on the clock hanging in the Court ticks to 10:46.

Jim was a bad lad, or a lost soul. A poster boy for his local drugs charity, he has successfully completed a 6 month rehabilitation programme.  Then the black dog depression fell upon him and swallowed. [1]

He can’t get an appointment with his GP, is terrified of his mail, falls into a hole.  On many days he can’t get out of his flat. He stops signing on. He loses a stone.  Yet he’s clean for class A drugs.

He certainly can’t deal with the 27 page Housing Benefit form that he received.  Thus 6 months of rent arrears clock up in a flash.

When the possession order was made against him Jim failed to attend court, because the notice was in his pile of unopened mail.  Jim is terrified of his mail. It is worth coming back to this again and again.

28 days ago Jim engaged with a local charity. From hiding under the bed to having a cup of tea and sympathy, he opened up.  14 days ago a volunteer came round and helped him to open all his mail.  Then Jim learns that in 14 days he will be evicted.  That’s what you get from opening your mail.

7 days ago Jim applied for backdated Housing Benefit.  5 days ago Jim got an appointment with his GP and signed on for sickness benefits while his depression receives treatment.  3 days ago we apply to stay the warrant.

2 days ago the charity offers to clear 3 months worth of rent arrears as a loan, while we wait for the benefit authorities to make their decisions.  10 minutes later Jim’s social landlord refuses this offer.

24 hours ago I’m in court and the District Judge says no. The eviction will go ahead, even if the money due is paid in 2 days.  Even if the Equalities Act says that housing providers must not discriminate against disabled people when  evicting. Even  when the Courts are bound by the same duty.[2]

Something breaks in my brain. We shall appeal.

Adrenaline.  Got to cancel our appointments,  got to mess everyone else in our diary around. We have to get an appeal across to another Court, because cuts mean that there are fewer Circuit Judges, who hear these appeals.

Budget cuts mean that Kim spends an hour on the phone to talk to a human voice, to find out where to take the legal papers.

Like a dirty swan our papers are filed inelegantly but within time. The very next day Jim and Alice and the Blonde Angel aka Counsel turn up to Court to find that the Court can’t find our papers.

A small sign says the photocopier does not take pound coins, and another tells us that it is broken anyway. There is an apologetic smiley face. 

The Court has been operating for 3 months with half the complement of Judges. There is a skeleton support staff.

Somehow an Usher finds a Judge at 10:05. Papers are read and argued. Counsel swiftly guides. My hand hurts taking notes even I can’t read.

Jim and Alice watch the clock.

10:46- The Judge tells her clerk to call the Bailiffs and stops the eviction.

Jim and Alice hug each other in exaltation. The eviction is not going ahead. Fireworks!

Sometimes the practice of the Law is like dancing on snowflakes. Most often it is a numbers game.

In these cases the Landlord can tie us up like a kipper when they use Ground 8 , the Magic Words[3].  It does not seem right to me that Landlords who provide Social Housing funded by your taxes can do this to disabled people, and stop District Judges from applying their common sense.  It is not right that people can and are treated as mere ciphers. 

In other news, another tenant has kept his home. For now. 







[1] I’m a sucker for people swallowed by the black dog depression. Even when you’re getting better it gnaws on your boots.
[3] For all you law junkies, let me recommend Grounds 8, 10 & 11 Sched 2 Housing Act 1988. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/50/schedule/2.  In essence where there are moderate rent arrears of 8 weeks Housing Associations can choose to ask the Judge what the right thing to do is, or muzzle the Judge by using the magic words “Ground 8”. 






]

Friday, 20 September 2013

Gothic

Mary is frightened of her husband.  Lord knows he’s no saint.

Vlad (as we shall call him) works  as a self- employed  builder, or a plumber, or a joiner. His paperwork is haphazard. He has young children, with another little bundle of joy on the way.  They say parenthood can be stressful.
Mary has worked as a waitress in a cocktail bar, but when that didn’t work out she turned her hand to working as a cleaner.  In her second trimester her ankles are quite swollen enough, thank you very much, and she has her hands full with the kids.  She’s depending on Vlad to provide for their family.

Let us suppose that Vlad is stressed out and verbally abusive to Mary. Let us suppose that he beats her senseless, when he gets the sack.  He’s very sorry afterwards, and it never happens again- OK, sure that’s true?
Let us suppose Vlad  gets himself arrested for violence , but when he is bailed to return at the police station  in a couple of months he has nowhere to go but his flat with Mary, where he keeps his coffin.  He pleads with her and she recognises that he is sorry, and in need of succour.

Then let us suppose that Mary enters into a cycle of forgiveness because she loves Vlad deep down, and doesn’t know how she will provide for the kids, let alone the nipper on the way.  Let us suppose that Vlad has got a taste for violence, and tortures his family by word or deed.

What can Legal Aid do to help?  Well, less than we used to.
When Mary flees her Vampire Count with her life and her children she forgets her identity papers. Anyone who has fled domestic violence might grab the baby but forget about the mail. Without her papers the Council refuses to rehouse her. Without her papers she can get no benefits.  There is anyway no legal aid for benefits advice anymore in 99% of cases.

We fill in 50 pages of Legal Aid forms.
The Legal Aid Agency sends us a letter telling us that as we have not intensively documented Mary’s begging receipts there is no prospect of stopping Vampire Vlad.  They tell us that she must give us all her documents for 3 months, an explanation for the £10.20 payment she made on 3rd June,  fill out an income and expenditure form  explaining how someone living substantially beneath the breadline is getting by. We do what we can.

Mary brought a letter from Susan, a neighbour who took her in and gave her succour. Chicken soup here, some pocket change there.  Gill, who put her up for a couple of nights doesn’t want to get involved. Without meticulous receipts of her life as a beggar, no legal aid, no injunction.
No garlic or holy water, I mean. 

We chance our neck and apply for an injunction anyway. By midnight we have a magic piece of paper with a Judge’s signature, and mother and baby are off the street.  Throughout this arduous process the baby is angelic. She doesn’t cry once.
As I walk down Lower Clapton Road looking for a minicab that will go to south London, the rain is coming down like bullets. By the time I pass the Narrow Way, focus of the Hackney riots in 2011, I am soaked to the skin.  Perhaps we will be paid, perhaps this will not happen when Mary’s Legal Aid Certificate is revoked. I know that I will have to spend at least 40% of my time on this case fighting for funding.

For the first time in many years the Legal Aid Agency has had its accounts approved by its auditors. But everywhere in the country homeless mothers are turned away from the door because their papers are not in order.
Thunder rolls, but I hear Vlad’s  demonic  cackle. Legal Aid used to work, more or less. Now they’re having a laff.

But tonight Mary’s cheerful baby has somewhere dry to sleep. Who’s the sucker?