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?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Potato Jesus

It’s early on the bus from Haringey to Hackney. Valentine crams on the double-decker with five schoolchildren in uniform and neck-ties, chattering wildly.  Ahead of them is an elderly woman, and ahead of her there are forests of slightly grim faced people headed into work.

The top  floor of the bus is crammed, and people are sidling on the steps,  hoping someone else will get off at the next stop.
   
Someone a few seats back tells us the Lord has arrived. She tells us that only the Holy Word will wash us clean, that God loves us all. “Jesus is a potato” she cries, taking an unexpected tack.  In London fashion we ignore her, but some are a little more askance.  Eyes roll. Then we get to the office.

Zadie's husband  Zak is beating her up.   

Changes in legal aid kicked in last month. Two thirds of cases have had funding withdrawn. Where it remains, the bureaucracy is more complicated.  If Zadie walks into the office bruised and bleeding, she needs all her papers before she can get legal aid to get protection against domestic violence.

The gateway is MARAC, the Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference. A sensible mechanism for the police to meet with the council and local agencies, and do a risk assessment- but something which takes time. Only when she has the right letters can Zadie get legal aid from a family lawyer. In the meantime she is at risk from Zac.

Jump forward six weeks. Armed with a documented high  risk assessment  Zadie  gets an injunction preventing Zac from coming within 100 metres of her.

She also applies homeless to the council. The council tells her that even though she has suffered 10 years of disgusting domestic violence, culminating in a stabbing,  she is not vulnerable- because now that she is away from violent Zak she has nothing to worry about. So the Council will not house her. She will have no choice but to return to Zac after all.

We make representations to the Council, ask for a review of the decision, threaten judicial review. The housing officer agrees to put her in a hostel while her file is looked at again. But before we do this, we have to send Zadie away to get her last three months banks statements.

Today legal aid is still available for homelessness as well as in many cases of domestic violence. If  Zadie's problems make the world seem cynical and uncaring, the new legal aid changes now being proposed are going to make the madness even worse.

Zadie's husband  Zak is beating her up. Zadie is Dutch, and has only been in the UK for six months.

Under new  proposals, unless Zadie has had Home Office papers for a year she can't get legal aid. And so,  Zadie really would have to  go back to the only home she has, with violent Zac, to endure  the same cycle of domestic violence all over again.

The State says that these new measures are necessary to sustain confidence in the legal aid system. It is essential to ensure that the public is not worried about European free-loaders coming over and getting legal aid to do god knows what. Like get protection against domestic violence, legal advice if their landlord tries to evict them through the courts, or with boot-boys and brickbats.

To me, this is a license for domestic violence against women who do not have the right immigration papers, or who do not have them with them because they left them when they fled. It is also a license for unscrupulous landlords. Effectively it strips the rights of anyone whose immigration status is difficult to understand or prove.

The crazy lady on the bus finds consolation in a religion where all are weighed equally. If  justice means anything at all, protection of basic liberties should be provided irrespective of where they are born. Yet arbitrary cuts will make our clients fry like chips.

If this is justice, I'm a potato.







Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Social Benefit Lawyer RIP


What is a housing lawyer?  Or what is a social welfare lawyer?  Answer-   we are people who represent and come to court for people with very little money.  We are paid for mostly by the tax-payer. Why should the tax-payer give a damn?

We are the people who work for charities like Law Centres or CAB’s.  We are also those working in private firms set up on a for profit basis, staffed by underpaid and idealistic individuals, with a thirst for social justice.  It is an honourable calling.

We speak for the battered wife, the cancer victim, the abused child. We speak for the tenant who has had her papers ripped up in front of her face, and who has been put onto the street because her landlord is too lazy or ignorant to take his case to court to obtain a valid eviction order.

We speak for the student who is qualifying as a teacher when her husband deserts her with 2 kids, and leaves her with rent responsibilities she can’t meet.

We speak for the tenant who paid a deposit for her private tenancy, when the landlord has pocketed the coin. Rules say landlord should have registered her deposit, but where are her rights if she has no voice?  

We speak for the soldier who has been mutilated by war, and fight the letters that would take his benefits away. We fight the veterans' rights no matter which side they fought for, on disability grounds.

We speak for disabled adults under 35 years of age who are racked by the room rent that slashes their Housing Benefit.  It is expected these “young” people will share accommodation with each other, but there are too few flats to share.

We speak for those on threshold benefits who must pay a new Poll Tax because Council Tax Benefit has been restructured.  £3 a week from someone on Income Support will become the norm. Where are the marches we saw in the 90’s?

We speak for the council tenant who raised a family in a two bed flat, whose wife dies, whose children moved away. He faces a bedroom tax on the spare room- yet there are no unoccupied one bedroom council flats that he can move to- if he moves to the private sector his Housing Benefit bill will be higher and we will all pay more.

We speak for the homeless people.  The family skewered by the benefit changes, the war veteran sleeping on the streets for six months. They are shipped out of London because it is cheaper to have fewer poor people here- yet what is London without it’s cockneys and with its parvenus?

We speak for the Londoners who die violently and are remembered by flowers placed on random corners, which in their turn wither and die.

We speak for British children who have no proper home and are hungry and scantily shod because their foreign mothers never married their British fathers.  When did we hate children so because their mothers fell pregnant to men that left them there?

We speak for children who live for years in cramped emergency hostels with no room to breathe, let alone do their homework from school. Keep the poor stupid, that’s the way. No academies or free schools for these kids.

We speak for the Poles and other Eastern Europeans. Polish pilots flew Spitfires in the war, yet we are unwelcoming when their children fall on hard times.

We speak.

Yet on 1.4.13 we will speak no more.  The clumsy Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act will cut off Legal Aid and will seal our mouths with lead. Legal Aid cuts will shut our mouths, and silence the voices of the marginalised among us. .

We speak  for the London that matters. We do not speak for millionaires with their high falluting tax schemes and their high paid lawyers and accountants. I speak for the living and vibrant Borough of Hackney, thus London , thus the world.

Let us all speak.


Thursday, 14 February 2013

Neets

Not in employment, education or training? What are we going to do about teenagers and young adults who are sitting on their thumbs, literally waiting for the other shoe to drop?

Off to Hackney Community College then, where I find a modern campus sharing space with Victorian brick buildings, an NHS presence, a bright cafeteria and young people scurrying from one class to another, intent on their studies, yet nervous about being too cool for school. It was ever thus.

The College offers training in everything from Brickwork to Sciences, Mastic to Asphalt, Hospitality, Fashion and Textiles. If there ever was a college rooting for its pupils to learn something, be it poetry or the practicalities of life, this must be it.

Many of the students are in the traditional 16-18 year age band I associate with finishing secondary education but a lot more are under 25's and older, trying to get qualifications that they did not get the first time round.

What surprises me is that the number one problem for young people gaining qualifications while signing on for work in Hackney is this. The different agencies often don't work together to keep these pupils in education, training or employment. Au contraire. They work against each other.

Some case studies then, not specifically linked to Hackney Community College. Just war stories of kids I have seen recently.

Yasmin was in care, but now she studies Beauty and Therapy while she looks for a job. Stop sneering when you read that.  It gets her out of her flat, she goes to classes and meets people her age, it gives her confidence. Yasmin will surprise us all one day, she has a feisty gleam in her eye.  In the meantime she might paint some mighty cool nails and earn a salary. She sparkles.

Yasmin is allowed to claim  Housing Benefit while studying  part time -up to 16 hours a week in the benefit rules. The college knows that, which is why her course involves 14 hours a week of classes and guided learning.

Sadly, those funding the college define a full time course as more than 13 hours a week of classes, and guided learning. So the letter the college give her to give to Housing Benefit says that she is on a full time course. Thus her rent has not been paid for a year and she is going to be evicted next Tuesday. This teenager is frantic with worry.

We apply  to Court  at the very last minute, and yet again it is just enough, just in time. A year's rent is deposited into her landlord's coffers. She's not going onto the street this time.

Joelle plugs away 15 hours a week on a catering  course while she looks for work. She takes some computer classes, looks on the internet and send off her CV's, but the truth is that with youth unemployment rates sky high she has had very little interest so far. She hopes that by acquiring qualifications she will improve her prospects. Surely she's doing exactly the right thing?

Perhaps the Job Centre is frustrated because she has not yet got a job after six months signing on. Their targets must look bad. Out of the blue it calls her and tells her she has to sign on on Wednesday, during her classes. If she attends class she will lose her Job Seekers Allowance- and the Job Centre can tick a box by lowering its claimant count. If she leaves class to sign on, she will be fail her class and have to drop out of education. Then she will have no employment, no education or training ("NEETS").

After another six months on the dole the Job Centre may have the bright idea of sending Joelle on a training course to improve her back to work skills. It will only last a few weeks, she will be told again how to write a CV, and she will not get the qualification that employers require, but hey, the Job Centre can tick another box that says it supported her by parking her on what is for her a junk course.

The Student Welfare Officers at Hackney Community College are a deeply impressive bunch. They know the problems the students face, the insecurities and stigma heaped on students without jobs. The three advisers share 1.6 full time posts, but all are legally qualified to give OISC approved immigration advice (far more rigorously policed than any other professional qualification with accreditation exams every 3 years- suck that up all you doctors and stockbrokers). They know what's wrong - but lack the resources to battle a bureaucratic avalanche.

The Law Centre laid off one in five jobs at Christmas. I could blow our trumpet and say that, with more than 100 years of accumulated legal experience of advice giving among our staff, we can ride to the rescue, and stop what is being done to young people by pen pushers. I would be lying.

The truth is that in April there will will be no legal aid for immigration or benefit cases for young people, or anyone for that matter. Fractions of posts like Student Welfare Officers and Law Centre and  CAB advisers will dwindle away. Last year Kenneth Clarke said that the arguments being made to protect Legal Aid were those of pigs to the trough.

Legal Aid rates had been frozen for a decade, then we got a 10% cut. Then they cut most of what we could do at any rate. Some trough. Nice one Ken.

Well fine, you decide.

Is it not absolutely bonkers that the Job Center no longer meets regularly with local groups to iron out stupidities like these? Do benefit rules that force young people training for employment off their courses and into a wasteland of inactivity help our economy in any way?  Is it right that Job Seekers can't study at community colleges to improve their prospects and get proper jobs?

Yet as long as one government agency can tick a box, frustrating what another agency is trying to achieve, it's all tickety boo.

It's all rather neat.