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?

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.