Friday, 2 December 2011

Standing One Inch Tall

Leila is from abroad. She has a baby in a buggy and a cute little girl who asks me politely for a pen so she can draw. The children are well dressed and impeccably behaved.

Although she has been in this country long enough that one child is in school, her immigration case has been refused, and she and her family are being evicted from their hostel by Social Services today.

I have to tell her we've reached the end of the line. She can go to a home her children have never seen, put her children into care, or disappear. I'm prohibited by law from advising her to disappear, but what woman voluntarily abandons her children into care if she has some other option? And how can she take her British born children to face penury in a country where the welfare state is non-existent?

Leila gives me piece of her mind in a dignified way. As she leaves I feel one inch tall. It's not my fault the law works this way, but I still feel guilty.

Lorelei had a disabled child, and for a period survived by giving blow jobs in car parks so she could feed him. We were able to do something for her after a while.

In this great city where over 300 languages are spoken every day, the humiliation and privation that you are subjected to vectors first towards skin colour and the foreign, and then a lack of the right documents. In this great city people will do what they have to, to get by.

Kenneth Clarke the Justice Minister recently said there was an "army of lawyers advancing behind a line of women and children, saying of course they are not concerned about the income of the profession; their only concern is for these vulnerable clients who will be adversely affected if they are not paid at the rate they currently are.”

Kenneth, I can tell you this for free. If you had seen the so called army of women and children I have seen, you too would feel one inch tall.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Postcard for Dudi

My great grandfather was Spanish. Salvador was a railway engineer by trade, who rose to be a transport minister for the Republican Government of Spain in the civil war against Franco's Fascists. Dudi, as we call him, stands over our family like a colossus, spreading his shade.

Family history and myth relate the moments when he decided to flee Spain. His car was stopped by gun-men from his own side at a roadblock. After giving his name he was politely escorted to a bullet-pocked wall and relieved of his jacket. An overzealous official double checks his first name as the firing squad cock their rifles.

“I'm Salvador, not Andres” says Dudi. “Sorry comrade” says the official and sends him on his way.

Dudi took his Scottish wife and two daughters to England and became a refugee. Many years later, after he had settled in Switzerland and written scores of books, he found himself landing in an aeroplane in Franco's Spain due to weather conditions. He tells the air-crew he might be shot if he lands, so they keep him on board and hide his presence, while they take on fuel. Can you possibly imagine that this could happen post 9-11?

Fatma and her daughter were granted refugee status, and now the daughter teaches. Hussein who is gay receives his leave to remain, because he has a civil spouse and, if he was deported with his husband, why they'd both be lynched on a crane. Case after case, I've seen deserving families given succour. The great convention on refugees still stands to protect those who have suffered persecution (as long as they have a lawyer).

Sadly, swingeing cuts mean really great charities like the Refugee Legal Centre closed their doors this year after 40 years or so. They tried to re-brand, but to no avail. The public sympathy is against refugees.

At least 64% of people receiving civil legal aid will lose a service in Hackney. That's 5,000 people, one tenth of the 50,000 people in London who will lose out. Sadly, there will be no funding anymore for social welfare law in almost all cases, and immigration will be cut to the bone.

And so Dudi, you great European Liberal, your dream of rights for refugees is still alive, and the shade your generation casts means we still observe the Refugee Convention and the Human Rights Act.

Only 10 Lib Dem MP's rebelled against the LASPO Bill in the third reading in the Commons. That was 10 brave people. 51 Lords spoke against the bill. That was 51 experts giving the bill a real kicking. We shall see.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Walk the Line

3,000 people walked through our doors in the last year. That's at least a 40% climb in people seeking legal advice. There are a dozen salaried staff, many part time. Wonderful volunteers defend the parapets.

We run out of stamps, our photocopiers break down, and suddenly we find it is almost impossible to print a letter. Without the ability to print letters we are a little like Silvio Berlusconi, all fur coat and no knickers.

Staplers break, pens stop working. It's all a bit spooky.

Chorouk observes that when she tries to print a letter the little twiddly gears on the photocopier start to melt. For every page she prints or copies she has to extract 9 mangled pages from the bowels of the beast, one at a time. She's a trainee solicitor, with oak leaves.

The Xerox call centre in Manilla promises a speedy response when we pay our bill. The thing is, our Legal Aid funding was cut by 10% last month. So already the bills are a problem.

Paula arrives without 3 of her 5 children. The kids are beautifully behaved. She's homeless tomorrow.

Hossein who is mentally ill arrives distraught and he also is homeless tomorrow!

Rita, Sue and Bob come in to talk about housing, benefit and immigration rights. The money problems have to be put to the back of the queue. It's not nice because if your giro's stopped you're going to be upset and worried. However evictions and deportations top our resource-meter (to use management speak) because they are catastrophic events.

Emails are sent, writs are drafted in our heads and we generally run around like chickens doing the Legal Aid dance.

When the dust settles no-one is homeless tonight and no-one has been deported. Good result? I hope so.

Volunteer Miranda walks in while the dust settles with the client with no name we all forgot about. She's housed a person with a few phone calls and has no idea why we start to cheer.

Walk the line, do the right thing, fear no-one. It's getting to be so difficult. Which is why we're closing our doors to new clients for a month.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Violence at Home

And so to Parliament again to hear about the impact of Legal Aid cuts on victims of domestic violence in a report by that very British group, the Women's Institute.

Jean suffered domestic violence 40 years ago. Her husband and assailant was a wealthy man. He held her under his sway. He put her in the hospital, and were it not for Legal Aid she would not have obtained her divorce or custody of the children. Her husband was convicted of causing GBH. She tells us that without Legal Aid, she would have gone home to the man who put her in intensive care.

Sam learnt that her partner had been convicted of tying up and raping a child. When she asked him to go he refused to do so. Eventually he went to prison for what she saw as an attempt to kill her by stabbing or breaking of the neck after she'd put the kids to bed. He went to prison, but for years after he stalked her, even in Court. She says that without a doubt she would now be dead if she had not been able to get help from the Courts.

Claudia managed to escape, but has to tolerate her daughter asking why her dad, who has contact with their daughter regularly, tells her that Claudia's not her mum. “You're white and she's black” he says. A wise child knows her own father I think, but most know their mother.

The proposed Legal Aid cuts are catastrophic.

If, in the last 12 months you have managed to get the man who used to hit you into prison or get him on trial, if you have managed to get any judge anywhere to state on the record that your allegations of domestic violence are proven, then you will get a service. If it happened more than a year later you won't get any help if psycho husband turns up.

If you manage to get a social worker concerned about the impact of the domestic violence that's good. If the police and the social workers have a meeting and declare that you are likely to suffer GBH or something worse that will help to get you a service.

Good luck with that then.

To get Legal Aid for domestic violence it is not sufficient to walk into a police station with a black eye. Convictions for rapists and assailants are very low. But if you have managed to achieve a conviction against your assailant in the last 12 months (no longer) you could get Legal Aid.

The government line is that objective evidence must be obtained that the woman is at a high risk of violence. The matter is being debated as we speak. But as anyone who knows anything about domestic violence will tell you, often the only witnesses to violent events are the victim and the perpetrator. Victims feel undermined and isolated, hiding their bruises, failing to report their rapes. They are cowed, they blame themselves.

One survey found that 70% of women in refuges failed to report their abuse to the police. With pitiful conviction rates for offences like rape, you can see their point.

The government's adoption of a new definition of domestic violence for which funding will be available will prevent many domestic violence victims, as recognised by by the Association of Chief Police Officers, from getting Legal Aid and thus they will have to represent themselves. They will have to be subjected to cross-examination by their assailants, something which in criminal rape trials is becoming a thing of the past.

Baroness Scotland, the Shadow Attorney General, tells us that in the last government domestic violence was reduced by 65%, constituting a saving of £7.5 billion pounds in social costs. It seems that this trend will now go into reverse.

In the debates the Legal Aid Minister Jonathan Djanogly states "I am not questioning the integrity of genuine victims. However, many people during the legal aid consultation were concerned about providing an incentive for unfounded allegations and the government shares this concern."

What really? The 5,000 response to the consultation included a significant response from rational people who felt it was too easy for battered women to get Legal Aid. I rather doubt that.

My brain fries at a certain point. I don't do family law, I just smell something that's not right. Justice doesn't smell like this. Not right, not fair.

Write to your MP. It takes 30 seconds on Justice for All's website

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Cancer: LSC doesn't give ATOS

Hard core devotees will remember the case of Annie who was refused benefits although she had cancer. For the rest of you here's a refresher.

It had a happy ending. We went to the Tribunal twice, but she got her benefits reinstated. Even better, an appointment with a British doctor was likely to be made soon, and there was every hope that she would start getting help from the NHS she so badly needed.

So I shut the case down, bundled it up and sent the file off to the Legal Services Commission for them to look at my bill.

A few weeks ago they wrote back saying they weren't going to pay me for 80% of my work because since the LSC won't pay for advocacy in the Tribunals (I was doing that bit for free) they would not pay for preparation for the hearing.

Never mind that we won and righted a great wrong. Never mind that this interpretation of the rules was counter to the last 10 Tribunal cases we had done. Never mind that this Legal Aid Funding has always been for all steps up to but excluding the actual hearing.

I only had 14 days to appeal. My appeal is late.

While my fortnight was ticking by we helped scores of people in danger of losing their homes, met immigration appeal deadlines of a week or less, housed homeless families at the 11th hour. My partner was in hospital, my secretary's daughter was in the hospital, we spent the time we had to help real people with real problems.

And now it seems we won't get paid for the work we did for Annie.

In a last ditch experiment I shall be sending our appeal late, and attaching copies of this blog. I shall be appealing to their humanity and British common sense. Then I shan't be holding my breath.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Gerrymandering Homeless Children

Henrietta left her council flat when her husband got a job abroad in Las Vegas. It seemed like a logical choice at the time. They were both going to make it big.

For a while everything was good. Her husband had a dream job, they were going to have a baby.

But when the child came along their relationship crumbled. Some men can't cope with proper responsibility. Having a real baby, shitting and grizzling is stressful- and some men can't take it. I guess they think of their dicks as a magic wand that has no payback.

When their marriage broke down, when her husband stopped paying for housekeeping for his kid, when she didn't have diapers or food, she realised that this man was no good for her or her baby, so she went home to the UK.

She stayed with a friend in Westminster, poshest of boroughs. After six months of ignoring her when she came asking for help and advice, Westminster booked her in to one of the two hotels that they have bought in Hackney.

Then Westminster told her that it was her fault that she had not hired a US lawyer to protect her interests, told her that it was her fault that her marriage broke down, that she was homeless. Told her that it was unacceptable that she should come home and ask for help for her and her baby.

And then Westminster evicted her.

And because the homeless child is now present in Hackney- where Westminster dumped the family- it so happens that social services in a poor East London borough now have to pick up the tab, try to work out how to stop Henrietta's baby being put on the street, or taken into care.

Well we got an injunction over the phone from a High Court Judge. Henrietta and her baby have an overpriced room in a hostel where the linen hasn't been changed, and both of them are eaten alive by bed bugs. The case is ongoing.

Meanwhile Westminster continues to keep its rates low by shipping unemployed people into Hackney and the East End, dumping them on our social services, and getting away scot free, smelling of roses.

Smelling of roses to the well-heeled residents of Westminster perhaps. Get rid of the poor unfortunates, send them to us. To me it smacks of gerrymandering.

Some of you with long memories will remember Dame Shirley Porter, fined millions of pounds unfairly (some might say) for trying to socially engineer the right sort of tenants and the right sort of voters in Westminster, so that we have the right sort of people in a Tory flagship borough.

This week Westminster trumpeted that it was going to give increased priority on its council flat waiting list to people with jobs because they want to reduce their Housing Benefit bill. So millionaire's row will be sending its single parents and its disabled elsewhere.

Under the new dispensation it's respectable to send people like Henrietta and her baby into poor boroughs to enable the rich boroughs to reduce their rates still further. I don't know about you, but I find the naked cynicism predictable and disgusting.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Inner City Came Knocking

The inner city came knocking on Tuesday.

I visited St Joseph's Hospice, Hackney, where smokers are encouraged not to smoke outside the door when ambulances are bringing people in, but to smoke at a bench in the garden. There's a fountain. There are flowers growing. There's a guy in a wheelchair with a tube up his nose having a fag. It's lovely.

The occasion was the launch of a social report “Try Being in My Shoes”, by Social Action for Health, a project that sees patients in GP surgeries who have benefits and social problems.

They save GP time, help benefit patients with sturdy paperwork, try and help patients with their anxieties. If the problems become too complex, they refer the cases to local law centres and other legal aid lawyers. Cases are titrated very cheaply, thousands and thousands of benefits income is saved for sick people,the NHS saves money. It's all win win.

The room is packed. Almost 100 delegates turn up. Healthcare professionals, voluntary organisations, people from the Council, youth-workers, we're all worried and angry.

The report dwells on a transformation of the welfare benefit landscape,cuts in the East End of London and sixteen case studies of ordinary people who the project helped.

Mostly the stories are of disabled men and women who face losing their benefits because of the robotic Work Capability Assessment to decide whether they are fit for work. Their experience of the new dispensation was mostly terrifying and bewildering.

One benefit claimant in the case study was diabetic. She was injecting insulin for her type 2 (late onset) diabetes. Her interview with ATOS broke down when the physiotherapist who was being paid for the 20 minute test disbelieved that she was injecting insulin. In his mind a type 2 case couldn't be using insulin like a type 1 case. Well, my partner has exactly the same condition, I could have told them.

Another patient will have to go on public transport for the test, as the DWP no longer sends doctors to visit the seriously ill. Even if the person is recovering from a heart attack or is agoraphobic. So she says she won't be able to go. She just can't cope. If she doesn't go they'll fail her, but if she does they will discount her disability because she managed to reach the interview, and most-like fail her too.

Vicky Hobart, an expert in public health (“The science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health” Winslow 1920) leaves me in no doubt that people have been living longer in Hackney over the last 10 years, and makes me worried that with these cuts people will be dying sooner.

50,000 people will lose civil legal aid in London , more than 5.000 will be in Hackney. That's a 64% cut in Hackney. Nationally 6,000 children will lose legal aid, and 70,000 youths (18-25).

Hah! We got off easy! In Liverpool 10,000 people will lose legal aid!

“Riots are what happens when the inner city comes knocking, and we're afraid to listen.”

Dianne Abbot MP was quoting more or less Ian Duncan Smith, a Tory MP and former party leader with a zeal for welfare reform based on some serious minded study of inner city deprivation, the causes and effects.

The riots in Hackney are Banquo at the feast. The elephant in the living room. The totally bloody obvious.

Today also the inner city began to knock.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Small Society

Sam is a bank manager who lost his job in the recession. He owns a house and has debts, we're talking tens of thousands. Pretty soon he's in court facing the loss of his home. His family might be on the street tonight.

He comes to the duty solicitor for help, half an hour before his hearing. It so happens we can help. We can ask the District Judge for an adjournment so that Sam can get a chance to restructure his debts. Creditors will often be reasonable when they see you can't get blood out of a stone, and the District Court has extensive powers where no agreement can be reached.

Samantha lives on an estate a stone's throw from here. She has kids too, and lives on survival benefits. She too owes money for a benefit overpayment of thousands, that is being clawed back at £10 a week. When you're living on the breadline that can make a huge difference.

Here again we can do something. We can ask the District Judge to give us time, and make an offer of £5 on the repayments.

My hope is that once Sam and Samantha are back in court again, we will have done deals with their creditors, repayment schedules will have been renegotiated over a longer time-scale, and two families will keep a roof over their head.

That is what rocks my boat, day after day. Keeping people in homes, and off the streets. What's more, Legal Aid pays us to help these two families, regardless of class and colour.

Actually, if the Legal Aid Bill goes through, this won't be true .

In the new Bill I'm allowed to tell the benefit authority that Samantha can only spend 48 p a week on shampoo, but if I have incontrovertible proof that she doesn't owe the money at all, my hands are tied.

Even if I know that I could persuade the benefits authorities that they have misinterpreted the regulations, the words are not allowed to leave my lips. Knowledge of the benefit regulations will no longer be funded by Legal Aid, because the new regime will be so easy to use, so transparent, that knowledge of the law will be an expensive inconvenience.

Put baldly, the Coalition has specifically removed any process invoking welfare benefits legislation from Legal Aid funding, because it's so pure and simple any fool can learn it, apparently (the regulations take up volumes).

The Government will however allow debt work to continue where, as in Sam's case, he is at risk of losing his home. Why it will not fund benefits work in identical circumstances can only explained in one way- class. Presumably the Tory Legal Aid minister, Jonathan Djanogly (known to one and all as "Jingle-Bells") wants to keep the home-owner vote, and isn't interested in people on estates who are not likely to vote for him anyway.

The effect of this will inevitably be that in the future Samantha will likely have a suspended possession order made sooner, be more likely to default, and be evicted in less time than before. District Judges in Hackney will bend over backwards to help families, within the law, if there is a prospect they can work themselves out of a hole. Yet without benefit advice many will fall down the drain, and District Judges must above all keep the machinery of Justice moving on.

It is alarming to me that this year already there has been a 17% hike in homeless people accepted by the Council (think of how many more are turned away). The recession and Housing Benefit cuts are already hitting home. Think how bad it will get once the Legal Aid Cuts start.

If the Bill passes Sam and Samantha have both been bamboozled. For charities like mine could close, and no-one will be left to help either of them.

In Hackney, 64% less people would lose a service, that's over 5,000 people. In Liverpool, it's 80%. For God's sake, are these people trying to cause riots by social engineering, because if I was a mad scientist, this is how I would start.

Our society isn't looking very big now. It seems very small. But we only need 83 MP's to change this Law, so please send them a letter, an e-mail, a tweet, a Wells Fargo pony mail by God!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

It took this country 40 years to build a network of Law Centres.

In the late 60's and early 70's we copied the US and set up charities in barber shops and empty office space. We had weird hair, might have worn bell-bottoms, and listened to the Rolling Stones.

We forced slum landlords to toe the line, we bailed out wave after wave of women striking for equal pay. The Notting Hill Riots happened and the laws got better. Racial equality and sexual discrimination laws were passed, and that helped.

Jimmy Hendrix altered the electrical guitar forever.

In the 80's and 90's Law Centres mushroomed. It was found that giving poor people legal rights that could be enforced massively improved their social outcomes. I mean, what's the law for unless the underdog has a voice too?

I spent some time in Slimelight, painted bone white, wearing rubber and lace. Chrissie Hynde, Souxsie Sue, Kurt Cobain.

In the naughties we had human rights law. The right to a fair trial. The right not to be tortured. Respect for the home and family. Common decency arguments. What's so un-British about that?

In the tweens they're shutting us all down. All the basic advice for people who haven't got the right papers.

It took this country 40 years to build something right. In 2 years it will be destroyed. Whatever your musical preference, please stick up for Law Centres and Legal Aid.

40 years

It took this country 40 years to build a network of Law Centres.

In the late 60's and early 70's we copied the US and set up charities in barber shops and empty office space. We had weird hair, might have worn bell-bottoms, and listened to the Rolling Stones.

We forced slum landlords to toe the line, we bailed out wave after wave of women striking for equal pay. The Notting Hill Riots happened and the laws got better. Racial equality and sexual discrimination laws were passed, and that helped.

Jimmy Hendrix altered the electrical guitar forever.

In the 80's and 90's Law Centres mushroomed. It was found that giving poor people legal rights that could be enforced massively improved their social outcomes. I mean, what's the law for unless the underdog has a voice too?

I spent some time in Slimelight, painted bone white, wearing rubber and lace. Chrissie Hynde, Souxsie Sue, Kurt Cobain.

In the naughties we had human rights law. The right to a fair trial. The right not to be tortured. Respect for the home and family. Common decency arguments. What's so un-British about that?

In the tweens they're shutting us all down. All the basic advice for people who haven't got the right papers.

The new crime and legal aid bill will destroy us. Social welfare law as a discipline will become almost extinct. Housing, family, benefits, immigration, all dumped.

I'm not just cheer-leading for Law Centres. The legal aid safety net is woven of private firms, Law Centres, CAB's. All of us will be affected, but most of all the blow will fall on poor people facing acute problems who will have nowhere to turn to.

It's not too late. At the third reading of the bill we need 83 MP's to change their vote. If you have any faith in the idea of justice, common decency and fair play, please write.

It took this country 40 years to build something right. In 2 years it will be destroyed. Whatever your musical preference, please stick up for Law Centres and Legal Aid.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Ben is perfectly likeable young man in a shared house who has been paying his rent and is looking for work, which is a bit tough to come by right now. An almost complete stranger beat him up on the street and made him homeless.

The thug came to their house, entered their home, evicted them onto the streets and changed the locks . I call him advisedly a thug, for this was no bailiff enforcing an order of the court here. Here was a landlord who couldn't be bothered to use a method which was relatively quick, easy, cheap and legal, and take them to court.

Ronnie and Bill have had their ups and downs. They're from Europe, work all the time, take care of an old man from Uzbekhistan who has been crippled by a stroke. Bill has too much to drink and hits Ronnie. He spends 3 days in the nick, so he hasn't got wages. Ronnie gives the landlord the money in her purse.
The thug turns up and pushed the stroke victim onto the street. I call him a thug advisedly. But yet again, he is the landlord. A lazy landlord, with no time for law.
At a time when unemployment figures are shooting up, even Germany has growth in the toilet, and a remarkable thing is happening.
In a usual year I may get one illegal eviction. In the last two weeks I have had four. It may be that this sort of criminal activity happens all the time, and I miss it, but after 17 years working here my bush telegraph is tired, but there. It reminds me of what social welfare law is for when I see it happen.
Landlords are suddenly chucking their tenants onto the streets. Without going to court. Without doing the things that the Council Advice and Options Service would recommend, to make sure that the process is legal.
I am frazzled. On the day that we get a re-entry order against a very big housing association, the Pembury Estate burns a vehicle or two. Then when I check online I am told by the Prime Minister that the causes of the break-down of law and order is “criminality pure and simple.”
Recently our PM qualified his reasoning. He indicated that bad human rights lawyers were "twisting and misrepresenting human rights in a way that has undermined personal responsibility" which apparently is exerting "a corrosive influence on behaviour and morality" which was the cause for the riots. Assuming there was a cause.
It seems that by going to court and getting a widow back into her home, I am contributing to the lawlessness on Lower Clapton Road.
Sorry mister Prime Minister. I will try to fight the Illegal evictions that are happening. One at a time, all the time. The good ship Legal Aid will not founder upon your watch, I'm hoping.

Illegal Evictions- It's Poverty Stupid!

Ben is perfectly likeable young man in a shared house who has been paying his rent and is looking for work, which is a bit tough to come by right now. An almost complete stranger beat him up on the street and made him homeless.

The thug came to their house, entered their home, evicted them onto the streets and changed the locks . I call him advisedly a thug, for this was no bailiff, enforcing an order of the court here. Here was a landlord who couldn't be bothered to use a method which was relatively quick, easy, cheap and legal.

Ronnie and Bill have had their ups and downs. They're from Europe, work all the time, take care of an old man from Uzbekhistan who has been crippled by a stroke. Bill has too much to drink and hits Ronnie. He spends 3 days in the nick, so he hasn't got wages. Ronnie gives the landlord the money in her purse.

The thug turns up and pushed the stroke victim onto the street. I call him a thug advisedly. But yet again, he is the landlord. A lazy landlord, with no time for law.

At a time when unemployment figures are shooting up, even Germany has growth in the toilet, and a remarkable thing is happening.

In a usual year I may get one illegal eviction. In the last two weeks I have had four. It may be that this sort of criminal activity happens all the time, and I miss it, but after 17 years working here my bush telegraph is tired, but there. It reminds me of what social welfare law is for when I see it happen.

Landlords are suddenly chucking their tenants onto the streets. Without going to court. Without doing the things that the Council Advice and Options Service would recommend, to make sure that the process is legal.

I am frazzled. On the day that we get a re-entry order against a very big housing association, the Pembury Estate burns a vehicle or two. Then when I check online I am told by the Prime Minister that the causes of the break-down of law and order is “criminality pure and simple.”

Recently our Prime Minister qualified his reasoning. He indicated that bad human rights lawyers were "twisting and misrepresenting human rights in a way that has undermined personal responsibility" which apparently is exerting "a corrosive influence on behaviour and morality" which was the cause for the riots. Assuming there was a cause.


It seems that by going to court and getting a widow who had been bamboozled onto the street into her home, I am contributing to the lawlessness on Lower Clapton Road. So silly of me, why didn't I think?

Why is it that landlords have, in many cases, taken to behaving like thugs? Is it criminality pure and simple? I think not. It's Poverty Stupid!

Sorry mister Prime Minister. I will try to fight the illegal evictions that are happening. One at a time, all the time. The good ship Legal Aid will not founder upon your watch, I'm hoping, although the signs are not good. Someone's got to keep law and order round here!

Monday, 15 August 2011

Peace March

The big police officer with the sandy beard is down from Norfolk. I ask him how many people there are marching and he's not sure. “This is a bit bigger than we're used to” he jokes.

We conclude that about 1,000 people had started in Dalston Kingsland and arrived in front of Tottenham Town Hall.

It started off quite small in Gillette Square, a stone's throw from the famous stand of the Turkish and Kurdish shopkeepers against thugs and looters. People kept arriving. You know, people.

Cameras circulate, looking for stories.

A white lad who must have been about 15 said he thought setting fire to shops was wrong, and also he had found it hard working for nothing for 3 weeks and then being told at the end of it that he had no job.

An Englishman with a beard talks in Spanish trying to explain why he thinks social deprivation in pockets of the richest city in the world might have been caused by economic problems.

A Kurdish woman in a black t-shirt participates in an organisers meeting where it's assumed that this is a peaceful march, and they agree on sensible rules.

One minute of silence is observed, more or less. Waves of hush settle on the crowd for the dead, the 6 people killed so far. People shout in whisper “Have some respect!” The crowd silences .

Then we march off. North to Tottenham.

We march only two miles, but when you're shuffling very slowly your feet hurt. It's the museum shuffle, a young woman tells me, and an old man confirms.

The best chants are all about rhythm. Oghie Oghie , Aye, Aye Aye!

The best of the chants were “Keep our kids in youth clubs , not in Jail!” Go on, try it. The next best was “The bankers are the looters, Give our kids a future!” Better rhyming.

At the front of it all were children with flowers. Dozens of cameras glided like insects.

The worst of the chants were “Stop the Police murderers, disband the police force!” Well yes, if we disband the police we know that all murders will not have been caused by the police, because there are no police. I suspect there would be more murders without the police, but then, who'd be counting?

Finally as we approach Tottenham Town Hall we get on message. "Give our Kids a future" is the rallying cry. Some locals look apprehensive, but others clap.

And we get there. And people of good sense speak. And a young Afro Caribbean woman speak and and says “Is there Love”

And we say “Love”.

Damn, I'm going to turn in my cynic's card and sign up to be a hippy.

Although we were carpeted with cameras, almost no mention in the media the next day. Well, the "Morning Star." And in the Sunday Indie an article by David Lammy, MP for one of the worst affected areas, has a picture of the adorable kids with flowers- and a caption saying it was from an anti English Defence League march in Telford. It seems good news is no news, and adds weight to the view that it's only when riots start happening that serious attention is given to inner city deprivation.

On the way home I stop to talk to a grizzled police officer at London Bridge. Turns out he's up from Folkstone. “This is a bit bigger than we're used to” he jokes.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Transparent Like Bullshit

Transparent like Bullshit

I see a woman with three children and a disabled husband.

She has been living in emergency accommodation since April, after her eviction, and has duly completed all the Housing Benefit forms required. She has two letters from Housing Benefit saying the rent is being paid for, and that they are sending the rent to her old landlord. This is an extreme waste of money as she is not living at her old home any more.

Another letter informs her that the agency housing her is on the point of evicting her, as she owes 5 months' rent.

I call the Council, spend an hour or so explaining our client's problems, and am told that no public money has been misspent, the file was suspended all the time. I am told that the letters that she has received were “generated in error by the system”.

I see a young woman who was trafficked into the UK for domestic slavery as a child, who after a 7 year wait has the right to be in this country. She's being evicted onto the street.

She has two letters . One gives her refugee status, one discretionary leave to remain. I'm no immigration lawyer, but when the official calls you and asks you to destroy one of the letters, my alarm bells go to ultra red.

Legal Aid cuts are aimed at the work that local charities do, because they say, there is no need for knowledge of the law for our work.

I say to you, there is a chord that binds us all together. A chord of wisdom and respect, letting the elder and the child speak, letting us all speak. Justice will not be silenced. Yet if social welfare law is extinguished, ordinary people with extraordinary problems will be diddled right and left, and all of us will suffer.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London Burns

Val, a committed and likeable legal executive is virtually in tears by Monday. Her house, off Haringey High Road is ground zero for the riots that exploded over the weekend.

Violence unfolded suddenly and unexpectedly on Saturday . One minute she was observing a small crowd outside Tottenham Police station who had assembled to demand answers over the death of a young man at the hands of the police, in circumstances which are still murky. Val then noticed a low-flying helicopter, and wondering vaguely whether there was a search on for a lost child,
she left to pick up a prescription from the chemist. By the time she got there the shop was being looted, and she ran for home.

All night she heard screaming and yells, and she got up sleepless to see her neighbourhood transformed into a moonscape. Beautiful listed buildings recently restored with great love (Haringey has more of these than anywhere in London) had been torched. Shops were looted, an entire row of mixed shops and residential building had gone up in flames, a neighbour's car had been burnt out.

The 89 year old barber who cuts her partner's hair was staring forlornly at the shattered windows of his tiny shop-front, where he seems to have worked time out of mind.

The staff are shocked, clients keep piling in and the work won't do itself so we get on with it.

Round one o'clock word gets round that there's an organised meet in Hackney. Kim and I go out to do an early post run and half the businesses including the Post Office have their shutters down. Shoppers and staff are drifting about aimlessly.

We elect to stay open in a frenzy of emergency applications, notices, pleadings, letters and client interviews- just another day at the office. Suddenly the TV's got live coverage of police lines 200 yards from our doorstep.

As buses close Red Pepper rescues us five in a car and gets us south of the river, like desperadoes catching the last stage coach out of Utah. A young woman on my train closes her phone and looks worried. “They've closed down the buses in Peckham.”

And so all night stuck to the screens. Burning cars in Lewisham and Hackney, an inferno as another carpet shop went up in Croydon, most unforgivably, a building in Peckham, again a shop with flats above. The police cordon in Lower Clapton Road stands right next to Marina's, greasy spoon of the world, and our local diner.

Today has been surprisingly quiet. A few broken windows in Mare Sreet and Narrow Way, about half of blinds down, no broken glass or burned out anything in sight, and 100 volunteers turn up outside the Town Hall to help. By lunchtime 90% of everything is closed though, including the banks.

Commerce goes out of Hackney with a whoosh, and London holds its breath.

No jobs, slashed benefits and services, rising cost of living, scrapping the lifeline EMA allowance that helps poor kids stay on in college and off the streets, yanking the price of a university education out of people's reach and dreams, it's not difficult to find the potent ingredients that made up this fire-bomb; the only question all along has not been if, only when.

Only a fool or a criminal would take pleasure at the sight of our communities burning down their workplaces,job-centres, and ancient buildings. Only a blind man could not have seen this coming somewhere down the road.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

There Is Rope, Or A Chord, That Binds Us All Together.

There is rope, or a chord, that binds us all together.

I have 200 cases and yet with the holes in my pockets I shuffle past
Bums begging a smoke at the beginning of the month on London Bridge,
I look into the rushing water, and my bag grows light, so easy to see the papers flying,
Gulls settling on the waters. Alone at last, at the Fridge

I might have kissed a bonny boy; I did once, but if I am lying, fire
Burnt the silver roads into your heart. The drum beat slows and rests a breath
Great heart, weave your threads lightning quick or we are lost,
Bitter tears others may weep, yet silence shall ever treat you gently.

With fire of reason shall our liberties be restored, loving kindness at the last
May lead us to an old man in rags who once spoke wit and wisdom, a bag of tricks, fire in a chestnut.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Cancer: Who gives ATOS?

Annie holds a letter from a NHS doctor telling her that she has cancer of the thyroid gland. If you place your hand on your throat you can feel it, just about. It's where your thumb is.

She waited over a year for proper medical help and did not find it from the NHS, who failed to make a follow up appointment for 13 months. Then she went native (as it were) and went back to her homeland of Lithuania. The Lithuanian health authorities removed her thyroid gland toot sweet. They prescribed 4 courses of radioactive iodine. They also diagnosed her partner with unsuspected liver cancer, and he passed within a week.

She comes back to Blighty because her children live here. They have been in school for years. She worked in a factory. She may feel more British than Lithuanian.

The deeply flawed Work Capability Assessment fails my sweet client. The so called doctors hired by ATOS (A French Company hired to fail as many benefit claimants as possible) ignore her NHS letter, and airily concludes she has only hyperthyroidism- an over active gland. Something that no GP would confirm without tests, but hey, what the heck, when you're slashing benefits for the work-shy we're all in it together.

The Tribunal doesn't list her case for a year, and then they fail to send her the papers, so the hearing has to be adjourned again.

The day before the next hearing I see her, and she tells me the cancer has spread to her lung. I start to grind through the 50 or so questions required to gauge her ability to work (how long can you watch TV before you lose the plot? Can you touch your toes when you bend down, and if you get dizzy touching your shin, who cares?). But it just seems wrong. She's too sick to engage.

“I feel tired and dizzy all the time” she says.

We go to the Tribunal and we win. Because the British sense of fair play allows very seriously ill people to bypass the WCA.

Today we won, but tomorrow we throw cancer victims onto the field of chance. No more Legal Aid for seriously ill people, because the DWP is or will be so transparent that no benefit claimant will need legal advice ever again. And just in case our plans don't work, we'll sack the lawyers beforehand in case this makes us look bad.

What makes me boil with rage is reading the Express and and it's ilk swallowing the Government lie that only one in 14 people claiming sickness benefits deserve to do so. 40% of claimants who appeal win. Those who have legal advice and representation are even more successful. Even the man who designed the WCA says it's not fit for purpose. But no, journalists in national newspapers are prepared to peddle unthinkingly the old lie; if you're too sick to work you must be lazy.

This is a tale about a woman stricken by cancer. When given a choice between an ageing health service struggling under a Stalinist dictat and a former communist block country she chose Lithuania. She worked hard in this country, she paid her taxes. Tomorrow she's on the rubbish heap.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Hackney Mona Lisa

When I was a young lawyer, green as glass, the building opposite the Town Hall in Hackney was empty for months, then years.

Then it was occupied for 3 months by a couple of dozen people who wished to set up a youth and cultural centre. A building that had been empty for a long time was suddenly full of hippies doing creative projects. A young idealist met weekly with the Council to lobby for emergency cultural funding that was never going to materialise, or a peppercorn rent for the space.

They lined the grim concrete with blankets, cooked lentils, grumbled about the future of the nation, and snarled at a sinister man who wished to buy a bride to sort his immigration problems. It was 94, and the young people knew the economy was crap then, as it's crap now.

In the fullness of time they were evicted. Yet before they left they did organise an exhibition of artwork, and a mural appeared on the north wall facing the Narrow Way of a woman traced in white on old dark London brick; is she screaming; speaking, laughing? We did not know.

For years she was allowed to remain and enigmatically question us, Hackney's own Mona Lisa.

Years passed and the building lay empty. Then the Ocean Centre was launched, and a sound studio, performance space and a decent cafe opened up. The moneys were European regeneration, to do up the Town Hall square, but also ate up sums that had previously been earmarked for charities. How we moaned.

There was a bright side however. I well remember steaming down on a weekend in my goth clothes (velvet coat-tails, doc martens and a bit of mascara, since you ask). A Pop were singing, I was dancing, and love never dies urged me on.

The idealists of yesteryear would have been proud. This, it seemed, was the project they had wanted 10 years previously, when nobody else was interested. Sadly it didn't last long. Somehow the Ocean ran out of cash, and before we knew it had closed again.

Mona Lisa is gone now, with the squatters and artists. The building was empty a few years more. Now its a Weatherspoon's.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Kicking Squatters Pt I

“Legal Aid cuts for squatters” the Evening Standard trumpets, and that sounds like a good thing. In the public eye squatters are dubious unwashed people who pop into your home the moment you pop out for a pint of milk and the Daily Mail.

In reality the amount of Legal Aid spent on squatters is minniscule. Allow me to explain.

Squatters come in different sizes and shapes. That horror of the Daily Mail, the gypsies/drug users who move into your home while you are on holiday can be removed instantly by the police. Upsetting incidents reported recently are down to poor police training, different police priorities, and lazy sensationalist journalism. So no Legal Aid spent here ( though those same taxpayers are wasting their newspaper money on misleading information.

Professional squatters in my experience tend to be oddly sweet young people, often muddled and with a real or metaphorical dog on a string. They occupy long term unoccupied premises, they set up artistic exhibitions. They try to make friends with their neighbours, with varying degrees of success.

They know precisely what the rules are, and know when they will be evicted. Heck, they're smarter than I am about court procedure. An interim possession order would put them on the street in days. Still no Legal Aid, except the very occasional half hour checking the legal paper work and usually confirming that all was in order and they would have to leave.

Very occasionally, perhaps three times in 20 years of practice one might comes across someone who has been allowed to live unchallenged somewhere for decades, and may have acquired adverse possession (squatters' rights). The idea that people or communities may sometimes acquire land by right of occupation goes back to Roman times. I see no reason to interfere with the arrangements as they are.

Finally, the criminalisation of squatters means that far from cutting Legal Aid costs, these would rocket, as minimal spend on civil legal process is scrapped and expensive criminal legal aid kicks in. That's what I mean about Jingle Bells. Clueless!

The failure by many journalists in the Standard/Independent group to challenge government spin on Legal Aid cuts is a matter for dismay.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Battered Tenants

Denise has a good job working for a Council. She has a council flat in another Council, and there's nothing wrong with that. She pays the bills, raises her son Jamal.

The problem is that Denise is joint tenant in her flat with her volatile brother Derick. Derick gets busted for fights in pubs, has to wear a tag. Moves his girlfriend and her 2 kids in and out of their 2 bed flat, slaps people around sometimes.

Pretty quickly Denise realises this isn't going to work. She asks to be moved. The police write a letter of support. Nothing happens. After 4 years of this her landlord suddenly moves her to a hostel, then moves her back after 3 days.

One day Derick goes for her and teen age Jamal gets in the way. Now Denise and her son sleep in a friend's living room. They've been there for 15 months. She sleeps on an air mattress so as not to spoil the sofa. Jamal is hanging on by his fingernails.

Her landlord strings her along, ignores it's policies on tenants with domestic violence issues, forces her to pay the rent arrears her brother has racked up in exchange for vague promises that never get fulfilled.

We're a charity so we help her out for free, but government cuts in family and housing legal aid mean soon we won't be able to. Soon getting civil legal aid will be like winning the lottery ticket- except that what you get may be an impersonal voice in an office across the country, where you can never look your lawyer in the face and judge the value of the advice she is giving you.

So much for protecting victims of domestic violence.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The New Rachmans

God Bless John Snow and Dispatches. On this 4th of July a major TV broadacaster looks at Landlords from Hell.

Criminals masquerading as charities brazenly explaining to our undercover reporter how to evict a tenant ilegally- and get away with it. Migrant workers stuffed into garden sheds, children living with mould and damp, the flagrant abuse and dishonesty is al to believable in my experience.

The chilling truth about Meridian Trust- one of the landlords featured- is that up to 80% of their income is Housing Benefit. That's right chum, it's you and me that's footing the bill.

There are extensive powers to regulate landlords. Most of them lie with Local Authorities, yet on average they prosecute less than one landlord a year. To do so costs money, and with the cuts in

Caroline has been living in a council flat for three years. Her property is rife with mould. Poor design ensures that her flat is not well ventilated. Basically, if she kept her windows open all winter the problem might be better, so she has to pick between pnemeunia and allergies produced by mould spores when deciding what's best for her kid.

Caroline's support worker Ricky puts it like this. "Your'e there half an hour and it's like trying to breathe underwater."

The Council's Enviromental Health Officers can't compell their own employer
to carry out works, but they can serve a "shaddow letter" on them, as if they were a private landlord, and (in effect) shame them into taking action. Not surprisingly, this never seems to happen.

Britain's housing stock is ageing and inadequate. A thicket of laws set up tto guard against this are not enforced by cash-strapped Councils.

What a good time to cut Legal Aid for housing cases!

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Netmums Nightmare

I wish to complain.

Pauline is in Court facing loss of her home. She works for the Ministry of Justice, and is being made redundant tomorrow. She has 2 teen-agers, one 12 and one 16.  The youngest a girl, the oldest a boy. Netmums everywhere know this is a nightmare.

She has been to see 3 firms for advice. She finds them all cocooned. Before she can get advice she must have up to the date documentation within the last month. Although 9 out of 10 documents that she bears prove her income, she has no Child Benefit letter within the last month. She says, perfectly logically, that  she has the same number of children. She would have noticed if she had had another one, or  lost one of the little darlings.

Not good enough. Common sense does not  prevail.

All legal Aid Lawyers are locked down in terror, it seems. Unless we have 12 or 15 documents proving beyond doubt that when we present our bill in 6 months we will be paid in 12 , why waste the effort?


Because of this. I was on duty in court speaking to a real woman who has worked  from the moment that she left school. And has lost her so called comfy job. Who has 2 children. The Judge accepted that, and she will not lose her home.

We got a result, but the reality is that the Legal Aid system is broken already.  Our paymaster the Legal Services Commission is cowed and demoralised, and lawyers are frightened of exercising powers to grant Legal Aid in emergencies because in 2 or 3 months time they will be second guessed and the Legal Aid will be cancelled.

People who need emergency services they are legally entitled to are not receiving it, Pauline might have lost her home.

I wish to complain.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Jingle Bells

And so to Parliament.

Government LA Minister Jonathan "Jingle-Bells" Djanogly came to visit us on Wednesday. His brief- to justify almost complete dismissal of 5,000 responses against his bill.

He is surprisingly young, but then for me the doctors and policemen suffer this also. He told us  one of the priorities of the cuts was to protect fundamental  rights that should be protected by the state.

Then he cut education law unless the child has a disability. I thought education was every child's right.

He tells us that another priority is savings. Thus all employment law will be cut.  He thinks people should rely more on trade unions. A first this, a Tory minister advocating trade union membership.

Fierce John from the Mary Ward Legal Centre (a proud charity dating to Victorian times) asks him  why appeals in Employment cases, which by definition are legally complex should be cut. After all, the employer has a lawyer. Why leave a carpenter or a cleaner unprotected against the might of the state or corporation?

Jingle-Bells tells us that there is no funding for representation in employment hearings anyway. We tell him that's wrong, in the Lower Tribunal that's true, not in the Upper. "But that's a tiny amount" he blurts out.

OK Jingle Bells, if tiny, why cut it? He doesn't seem to know.

Jingles tells us that  another priority is value for money.

A comrade from Shelter points out that its no use defending a possession case where a client isn't getting their housing benefit unless you can do something about this. Jingle- Bells assures us that he is trying to make the benefit system so efficient that there will never be a need for lawyers again.

Pull the other one Jingle Bells.

A very senior legal executive asks why funding is available when children are taken to Europe, but not Wales. The Minister looks more than usually confused., smiles a bit shily. A young civil servant (see above) explains that the reason is the reason.

An Irish lawyer asks about the impact of lack of funding for disabled clients. Jingle Bells assures us that Equalities Protection will be in place. “But disabled people will lose benefits just like other people” he adds magnanimously.

Oh Jingle Bells!

Finally I lose my temper. A straight answer to a straight question if you please. Last month we forced a Council to pay for 18 months of Housing Benefit and preserved the home of a family with a disabled child. Yesterday we stopped an eviction, and prevented a family being flung onto the parish. Tomorrow who'll do our job?

Jingle Bell blushes, and gives a speech about this government's deep commitment to the voluntary sector. I'm not sure he knows what Housing Benefit is for. Or the voluntary sector.

Under the reforms British children or children born in this country will have no funding to apply for leave to remain. Their mothers and carers can't work and can't claim benefits. Family life clearly is no great priority for Jonathan.

Linda Lee from the Law Society is dismayed and disappointed.

Jonathan assures us that 5,000 replies to his consultation were carefully considered. And then discarded.

Oh Jingle Bells!


Sunday, 19 June 2011

Snot true

Snot ran off my client's nose as the Judge labelled her case speculative and made an outright possession order. She will lose her home.,

She has a bold faux-gold stud in her nostril. I feel a huge sympathy because she has been put under the microscope this last six months.

She came to this country aged 9, now she's 24. She has 2 kids of her own. Legally she isn't allowed to work. Social workers smile at her and cook their books.

She owes four thousand pounds to her landlord because the same social worker who took her kids away forgot to pay her rent.

I stand and explain all the information to the Judge and she says my case is speculative.

Judge, clean up your act. They're already taking away Legal Aid, but I won't put up with this .

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Reader Survey

Thank you dear friends.

We in the legal professions have sent 5,000 suggestions to the government in response to their consultation on Legal Aid cuts, which may be ignored- what are the chances? This month the axe almost certainly falls on Legal Aid.

Wild figures are cast about . The figure of 70% funding cut to charities who practice Law (for God's sakes!) are Government projections. Law Centres and charity would face closure across the country.

I would never have gone out on Facebook or Twitter unless I thought this mattered. It matters.

I started this blog specifically because I wanted people to realise what we may lose- and also to share stories about daily experience working in Hackney.

Feedback has been very encouraging. This month Frontline passed the 3,000 visits mark, and people regularly visit from as far afield as Russia and Australia.

What there has been very little of is feedback on the Frontline site. So I am sometimes left wondering whether these numbers are simply artefacts of the internet, rather than real people.

What have you found interesting in Frontline? What would you like to hear more about (and what less?). Please leave some comments on Frontline's page this week, so I can plot another 3,000 visitors.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Terry Pratchett/ Life doesn't get much better.

Went to my job in my No2 Jacket, now moved to No1 (pale grey). Didn't expect Court so I wore black jeans, a little old, Doc Martens , dove grey shirt, tie.

Went to court anyway, did the business, found myself after 7 ½ recorded hours of work and 12 hours at work sitting at a bus stop in Lower Clapton waiting for the 48 bus. My emergency supplies are Camel Lites, any newspaper and an emergency book.

Emergency book is Terry Pratchett's “Moving Pictures”, light and funny, but not one of his best. I'm eyeing the rain when a young man stops.

“What are you reading?” He asks. He must be about 16 to 17. I'm white with my pony tail and balding, he's black with marvellous hair and a love for books.

We talk about Terry's best, which includes “ Reaper Man”, “Wyrd Sisters” and “Guards Guards!”

He shakes me by the hand and goes on his way, and I say to myself, life doesn't get much better than this.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Is Legal Aid falling to pieces allready? Ask Violet

A barrister phones me. Violet is a smart dedicated barrister of impeccable socialist principles in the ways that matter. She knows and cares about the clients. She argues smart law.

She wants to know when we can have a Legal Aid Certificate. Without this none of us is paid.

“Yes” I say, “I think it's just arrived. Sorry about the delays” - at present the LSC are processing correspondence from 20 April (we're talking emergency applications here). Papers get lost. Requests for reviews of batty costs decisions take a year. Emergency legal aid runs out after 28 days and you spend hours trying to secure emergency cover.

Hours of my time are spent listening to Vivaldi's “Four Seasons”.

Meanwhile, if our papers are sent back after 12 days because the client's name isn't spelt out in BLOCK CAPITALS underneath the signature on p12 of one of the forms (I am not joking) they limit your cover to 5 days because you did not submit the forms "properly completed". 
Explanations of "good reason" receive short shrift e.g my 70 year old secretary had to go to bail her schizophrenic alcoholic daughter out of police/hospital? UH UH! Not good enough. 

My partner had a heart attack and my world went to pieces? Still not good enough.

The sad thing is the staff at the LSC hate it too. These are bright friendly people who want to work, often are legally trained, and are located all over Britain.

Meanwhile, soon we won't be able to grant Legal Aid any-more, so when a homeless family come in we'll sign the forms, send them off and tell mum with tots to come back in 11 weeks or so, if they're lucky.
What are we supposed to do? Kick them out onto the streets?

Violet. The Legal Aid system is taking a heck of a hit already. But I recommend to you the Parliamentary inquiry by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, and Young Legal Aid Lawyers which you may find here

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Picketting the Supreme Court

It was stifling hot when we set out to be Legal Aid Super Heroes on June 3rd, Heron and Wendy and I.

Me in my blue jeans, denim jacket 20 years old covered with pagan symbols , Heron the smart scouser carries our banner furled up. Wendy, 30 years in the movement no longer has to use a walking stick for her injury.

Full of good intentions we arrive before the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. Then the crack team of litigators that we are, we realise we need to be in front of the Supreme Court in Parliament Square. Duh!

Hop a Taxi then realise that my Mum who doesn't have a mobile phone and has come up specially from Dorset will also be going to the wrong place.

Parliament square is seething with humanity. Hordes of rubberneckers choke the pavements. We arrive on a small island in front of a Very Important Building.

In a sea of honking traffic we hear a shadow minister, a peer of the realm, the leader of a venerable legal charity. They have bull horns but you can only hear every second word. We set up our 18 foot banner in blue plastic with “I Love Hackney Community Law Centre” and “Save Legal Aid.”

Suddenly everybody starts chanting . “Save, save, save Legal Aid!” We get moved up to the front. An acapella band comes on, four piece with Sound off for Justice tee shirts. They sing I Fought the Law and the Law Won, they sing about human rights. A client's little girl starts to do the Twist, and we are all amazed.

The band leaves, We should leave too. No. We stand our ground. People come up we haven't seen in ages. Photos are taken. We catch up on old news. More and more people come up.

A very tired woman who has been working at Basildon Court turns up. We sing the Internationale very badly indeed. We go home.

Heron lost his wallet then found it again. And incidentally, I found my Mum. In June they will tell us about Legal Aid cuts. At least we've said our piece.

Monday, 30 May 2011

From bad to verse

We have some stamps, for this our thanks
We walked along the river banks for charity
You raised a grand for us, we're grateful, see

Consider the poor volunteer, unpaid, unloved
And over here, h/she gives sweat and love and grief,
To take a statement, write a brief, learn on the job, and then
They have no cash for lunch, poor them.

A bowl of soup, a healthy snack, how much would a fiver set you back?
Listeners be of good cheer, buy lunch for a volunteer

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Scary Judges Super creeps

The first time I ever I faced a Judge I was on my own, high in the Thomas Moore building. 

I was a 3 month trainee solicitor with a legal document ripe for execution. We were in the attic of a sprawling Alice in Wonderland wedding cake of a building called the Royal Courts of Justice, in the Strand.

I very callow and young, and there was a scary gnome sitting behind a huge desk with a big shock of white hair like Rumpeltstkilskin.

“Mr Mathews “ boomed the gnome “Are you a carpenter or a joiner?”

That floored me. I was still trying to get to grips with being a clerk learning about legal thingies. I cast about me wildly. Outside there was a scaffold, and maybe he thought I had broken in by mistake. I could be free of this. All I had to do was tug my forelock and step out the window.

“The pen Sir.” And then it was so blindingly obvious. Behind my ear there was a pen.

Then the gnome kindly approved my motion. I remained almost speechless. He told me that in Chancery the court writes up the orders, and I was out of there.

The gnome was fierce to get my attention, yet kind to teach me. That was a kind Judge. Others have been less kind, and less wise.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Stamp Walk

Bella tells us the stamps have all gone
And it's true, all our office supplies
Have vanished like mist in the morn
And on these things our good work relies

We have notes to take but no pens
Our staplers are battered and trashed
We have letters to write but no tapes
And a terrible shortage of cash

Friends we come hats in hand to you all
We beg you to have no misgiving
On Monday we walk for free legal advice
Please visit Virgin money giving

Friday, 29 April 2011

Could Clark Kent ever become the US president?

A media storm (oh how I love them) is troubling Fox over issue 900 of Superman, which features the man of steel flying to Tehran to protect peaceful protesters against the tanks of President Ahmedinejad, then returns home to inform the authorities that the is renouncing his US citizenship, because he does not wish to be seen as an instrument of American foreign policy.

Needless to say many of my countrymen are incensed by such clear evidence of a communist takeover of the lamestream media. Said one "The liberal, America hating scumbags who now run DC Comics are just adding another feather in their cap with yet more anti-American culture and tradition jihad. F--k 'em," wrote one commenter. "This is why I don't go to movies or even rent anymore. I'm not making the left loons of Hollywood any richer to support their campaign of American hate," added another.

A real comic book scholar would know that the DC universe periodically recasts its characters in alternate histories, moreover that in one adventure Ka-El fell not on the American prairie but on that of Siberia, and grew up to battle for the mother country against a sick capitalist called Lex Luthor who has gained the supreme office of the land of the free. Thus, the conspiracy could be proved.  But no, they're just not prepared to do their homework.

But really,although my first inclination is not to lend succour to those of my fellow Americans who now spend 24 hours a day watching Fox TV, fondling their rifles and stuffing their necks with freedom fries, I am afraid that there is something more sinister afoot.  I don't want to go all birther, but I do have to ask, does Superman have a US citizenship to renounce? The evidence is not encouraging.

1 He is an illegal alien, having arrived secretly by spaceship. Although in times gone by the US was built by successive waves of immigrants, a feeling has arisen in places like Arizona that enough is enough. Witness the defeat of legislation proposing to confer US citizenship on children of illegal immigrants from places like Mexico if they carried out a tour of duty in the armed forces or obtained a college degree. It seems that neither heroic sacrifice for the security of the nation nor improving the wisdom and economic potential of your country is sufficient. It seems difficult to justify an exception for the man of steel.

2 He was informally adopted by 2 American citizens who, we must presume, had to secure a forged birth certificate. We know this because had the authorities been alerted of the landing of a baby in a space ship Clark Kent would have been big news, and would probably have been taken into care by social services.  His secret identity would certainly have been blown.  If Clark Kent has managed to acquire a passport  which seems kind of pointless when you can fly to Tehran faster than an ICBM, this will have been obtained by deception and thus is null and void. The implications of social security fraud and unlawful employment by this mild mannered reporter would certainly scupper his run for office.

3 He was not born on American soil. Although like myself a person may gain American citizenship when born abroad if one parent is American, that person may never be President. Another much loved man of steel, Arnold

Schwarzenegger, has been governor of California but can never become president as he was born in Austria. Similarly Ka El was born on the planet Krypton. Rules are rules. Although if Clarke were to declare himself a Republican, it is possible that a constitutional amendment could be arranged.

4 He's not even human. Only humans can be US citizens. Are there any US citizens that are cows? No, thought not.

All I can say is Donald Trump eat your heart out. I got to the evidence first. And I can come to but one conclusion. Superman must be deported.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Bonfires and Angels

I'm standing at Old Street Roundabout with a really heavy briefcase. Paper is made of wood, and I'm carrying around at least three bonfires. My head hurts and I'm having a fag, waiting for the bus.

I worry about the case I'm on in in half an hour for. A young man in an unsteady job helping people in the gym is behind on his rent. He's so badly paid he would be better off on the dole. That's a harsh thing to say to any young person.

A young woman walks up to me. “How are you” she says. Her face is open and friendly. “Not so bad “ I say, but already my panic response is going. She knows me, but I don't know who she is. Must be a former client.

“I just wanted to tell you how much you helped me get back on my feet. Thank you, you really did a good job for me” says the woman, whose face I remember but who's name escapes me.

I'm a bit flustered because I have a brain that needs helpers when I see a face. It's rude to ask the client to remind you of the case papers. If I could remember which writ, which notice of possession, which warrant of eviction, maybe I'd stand a chance. She's still smiling.

“Look , I'm off to work, but thank you” she says. Then the bus arrives. My guardian angel gets on the bus and flies away.

Suddenly, the day becomes a little brighter.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Let us give thanks for volunteers

Archibald and Amy came to us to give their time for free.

Like many talented young postgraduates coming  into the marketplace they found no jobs, so they decided to volunteer for their local charity. Archie should be on a proper training contract so that he can qualify as a solicitor after 2 years. Amy is a brilliant single mother who has qualified as a barrister, but can't get a place in chambers.

In spite of their money worries they decided to volunteer for us, and soon they helped an ailing Law Centre turn itself around. They're on the phones one moment, talking to drop in clients the next. Reading papers, filling out funding forms, gathering witness statements and lecturing housing officers, rarely do they have time to sit still.

I could give special mention to Archie's careful interviews of dozens of neighbours that helped a family member keep his flat after his grand-dad passed away.   Or Amy's clever skeleton arguments, or the people who turn up every day who she talks to and then makes appointments for.

The fact is that Amy & Archie give no more and no less that up to 100 volunteers a year who contribute acts of kindness.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Big March

Saturday morning at the Royal Courts of Justice I was buzzing for Justice. Rule 1 in our legal system is what is in the interest of justice? Having drunk 2 coffees, anything was possible.

200 Gurka's were camped on the tiny traffic island around the RAF Church. Men with distinctive hats and rows of medals accompanied by hardened army wives in colourful costume who sang and danced.

We were going to a march, and march we did.In moments we were sepparated from the Justice for All banner.

It took an age, standing with our banners, waiting for it all to kick off. A sea of humanity swamped the embankment  Ancient banners were displayed, all scarlet and tasselled. Union and local party banners , the design over 120 years old in some cases. Pictures of the founders in their long Victorian whiskers.

Then a cloud of green and pink balloons was released and we were off. Marching under the bare London trees. Except we just stood there for 40 minutes.

We moved, in starts and stops. Behind us was a group of teenagers from Dorset sporting green bandanas and kerchiefs, campaigning against EMA cuts and fee hikes. Bless, I thought, aren't they sweet. Then I overheard one lad who couldn't have been a day over 16 tell his mate how this was the third march he's been on. Hell, I should be asking them for tips!

The firebrand spoke thus “Oaaaaaaghhhhhyiiii We hate Tories we hate Tories we are the Tory haters! Many people hated the Tories, which is not surprising. Then the cutest group of kids overtake us with their mum. They have face paint and are chanting "No ifs no buts, no public job cuts."

Soon we moved on. Then we stopped. And then we became aware of the Anarchists walking next to us with their lip piercings and their rat tail hair and every one in a top hat. Top hats moving in a straight line along the Thames. Shortly afterwards the Love Tank glides by, a sort of float playing Bob Marley.

Then I collected my senses and we began to move and on my left was the London Eye. Then we inched along for 2 hours. 2 hours turned into 3. Our legs hurt, out knees ached. Then nothing is moving at all. Then Michael Mansfield QC arrives and everyone's shouting, save, save Legal Aid!

We see dinner ladies, dentists and dieticians. Union banners from all over the country, and local activists with hand made signs. My favourite of these was "Bankers of the world ignite", but running a close second is the butler complete with tray and tea pot and "Teapots against kettling." Special mention for the kid with "My parents are making me carry this sign."

Then we're into Westminster Square. We speed up and soon we're past Downing Street where we all slow down and hiss and boo. Firebrand is speechless. “He's probably at Chequers” someone points out.

We hook a left at the Horse Guards, some protesters gurn at the young man in 19th century horse armour, personally I think that's mean. Marchers go for a leak and firebrand sounds off. An actress for East Enders gives us a cheer.

We're back in the march, around Green Park .We're all hoarse and we can't carry our banner any longer. A Hackney Turkish group comes up behind us, and sings the Internationale in their own language, A Union walks past and it has the words to the Internationale but we're to hoarse. And tired. 

We walk by some banks that have broken windows, but more often paint bombs, defended by worried policemen and policewomen. The Evening Standard reported that damage worth millions had been done. A few thousand maybe.

And then we're there.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Hackney Has Fans in Australia

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Saturday, 19 February 2011

Human Rights- British as Sausage and Chips

The overwhelming vote by MP's  against implementation of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights ("ECHR") to give prisoners the vote is only OK as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate the ultimate power of Parliament. However some of the speeches were a disgrace and muddied the waters in a populist media campaign that is ill informed and ill intentioned. If they don't now move on and compromise it will be an embarrassment and a disgrace.

The ECHR is not the same organisation as the European Economic Area ("EU") , which is fundamentally a customs and trade treaty. Instead the ECHR is an international Court set up after the war with one aim in mind- to enforce a commonly agreed standard of basic human rights.

Thus screaming "Europe!"  to frighten people is either ill informed or wicked.

After the war Europe deliberately constructed a framework to ensure that Nazism and totalitarianism could never happen again. British and French Jurists were extremely influential in drafting a list of rights which includes the right  to life A2 , the right not to be tortured A3, the right not to be discriminated against A14 and the right to a fair trial A6, as well as the right to respect for your family, privacy, correspondence and your home A8

As British as sausage and chips, surely?

One MP called the ECHR "A kangaroo court". Really? A court where respected judges including our own are sent to try and agree on tough cases over basic human values that unite us?

David Davis, co-sponsor of the bill uttered the word "lawyers" like he meant cat sick, and explained that until the lawyers came along there hadn't been a problem.  Not being a lawyer became a badge of honour, and scarce 22 MP's dared to speak for the idea of obeying the law. How Jack Straw could sponsor the bill and defend the ECHR frankly I don't understand.

Banning lunatics and criminals from the vote only dates to the 1870's, and banning women was always traditional. Now women and people with mental health problems have the vote, and the idea is floating that some prisoners should get to vote too.

Strangely the story became that fat shark lawyers would bleed the government dry unless Parliament voted for the reforms, and therefore it voted against it. But then, this is a kangaroo parliament.

The Express and other newspapers have been shrieking at the prospect that 90.000 people who have been banged up (among the highest in Europe may I add) might  get the vote. Something entirely irrelevant in electoral term in a nation of over 60 million people.  Yet one of the functions of time in prison, and one of the cheapest ways of encouraging a prisoner to engage with the idea of how they will behave once they are released into society, is voting.

Frankly, I think many won't bother in line with national trends, some will add a desolate vote to Nick Griffin and other nutters, but some will start to come to their senses and will benefit from being able to make small gestures

Once again the Express is in paroxysms of delight today when a High Court Judge has rejected damages claims by frustrated prison voters as un-British and unconstitutional. What the Express fails to understand is that only the British Supreme Court is able to pass judgement on the conflict between our Courts and the ECHR. Thus the case will make its way up the Court Appellate process. Express notwithstanding.

Ill intentioned and ill informed, newspapers whip up clouds of confusion because lazy journalists know there is no point investigating and reporting the facts. Their editor will rip their research to pieces and impose the line their editors' paymasters dictate.

My worry is that our Judges, the best in the world, will bottle it in this media storm. But I'm a small cog in a big wheel. I hold my breath and have my hopes.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Skating towards Perdition says Jonathan Djanogly

“I would dispute that we have a roller skate legal service in this
country. I think it’s actually demeaning to the professions and to the excellence of the quality of service that most people receive [from Legal Aid].” Tory legal aid minister Jonathan Djanogly told legal bigwigs on 7.2.2011.

As a moderately depressed geezer working at the coalface this seemed like quite cheerful news. We'd all been worried about cuts of £350 million and 50% cuts to Civil Legal Aid services.

Oh wait, to paraphrase the rest of Jonathan's japes at the Westminster Policy Forum, therefore he's going to proceed to cut £350 million and ensure that 500,000 people will lose access to Civil Legal Aid.

So that's all right then. Cuddly Jonathan thinks that although we don't yet have a roller skate legal system, we should have, and this will make working in legal aid less demeaning.

Government consultation on massive legal aid cuts closed at 12 pm St Valentine's Day, as Chancellor Ken Clarke received thousands of  e-Valentine cards asking him scrap his plans to cut legal aid.

On 31 January 90 lawyers, charity workers and union members met with clients to plan a fightback at Hackney Town Hall. Already in just 14 days 1,000 Hackney residents have signed petitions to save Legal Aid. 500,000 people will lose free legal advice for problems such as debt, housing, and family, which is half of the number who are receiving civil legal aid now.

Local resident and human rights barrister Liz Davis, chair of the Haldane Society said that since 1949 Legal Aid had been the fourth pillar of the welfare state, along with the NHS, free education and the benefits system. The cuts would slash access to basic rights.

A member of the public who came to the meeting with her disabled mother said that she was a refugee who had been helped by Legal Aid when they were both homeless. She now has a university degree and is working as a dietician with Council services to improve school meals. “I wanted to give something back” she said.

12 Courts will close over the next 2 years in London. Nationally 3,000 jobs will be lost, but it's not about the jobs.

We put in a petition with 232 signatures by real people. People who put a mobile phone number and a post code, and a scrawl.  Mums with prams and kids, pensioners apprehensive about meeting a lawyer but hoping they may get help, worried and confused people from many walks of life with threatening letters and court papers they don't understand, smart people we only have to give a little knowledge to who go away and sort out their problems for themselves, frightened teenagers who have been trafficked as maids, then thrown out when they became 18, broken old men stuck low by drug problems and decades of homelessness and heroin, elderly people crippled by cancer, blindness, renal failure, who should be talking to doctors not lawyers, volunteers coming in day after day to help us run our cases.

232 people said No to LA cuts.

I'm sure there's more out there.