As we watch rolling demonstrations by student activists who keenly feel that something precious is slipping away before our eyes, we are encouraged to become distracted. When is it ok to break a window? Since kettling is at present legal, or maybe not, when and how should it be used? Is it OK to deface the Rolls Royce owned by the next symbolic head of state in a symbolic way, and why is it almost OK to throw and egg at someone sometimes, but not not poke a woman in the stomach with a stick?
These are important questions, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that these are symptoms of a disease, by which I mean not an illness caused by a microscopic organism, but a a sense that something is very out of kilter. A fundamental shift in what people think a fair society should look like, perhaps. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Or maybe Dalston.
We all have come to expect free education, free healthcare, and benefits that will preserve a minimum standard of decency for the unemployed. But what sort of system do we have to protect people when these things fail? I ask you to give a thought to the legal aid system.
I was having a fag outside the office and thinking about all the letters piling up on my desk. Marilyn came with a volunteer from one of the local charities to tell me that she owed £45k in rent and she was going to be evicted. She was a pensioner who had worked her life as a cleaner on minimum wage, then got thrown on the scrapheap when she retired.
Marylin said she had found the benefit forms a bit confusing and hadn't received Housing Benefit in 2 years. I can't fathom why the taxpayer should have to pay 45k for the run down homeless hostel where Marylin was living, but that's another story. The fact that she was in arrears however automatically froze the move on-process to a cheaper council flat, so the arrears sky rocketted.
We wrote to the Council suggesting that their information was wrong, the volunteer made sure that Marylin made it to the Benefit Office with all her papers, and the Council saw the light. Marylin is in a home, and the legal aid investment of £350 secured £45,500 in increased benefits and debt write-offs.
Charles grew old and the vessels in his brain grew crooked. When he saw an officer for the Council, he saw an enemy. His rent arrears rose to £12,000, he wouldn't answer the door to anybody, and when he was taken into hospital he was on the point of losing his home.
We pitched in, and his rent was paid off by Housing Benefit and family. Charles has taken the wonder pills, he's back with his family. For the £7k pay-back in additional rent payments, we spent £174 in legal aid.
For Marilyn and for Charles we provided a service that might not be around for very much longer.
In the Green Paper on legal aid, all benefits advice will be disallowed, all debt advice until your home is at risk- and by that time it is often too late. All employment advice for employees will go, but employers will use lawyers all the same. most of housing advice and most of immigration advice will go. Unless violence is involved in divorce cases, no help for separating families, and thus the paramount rights of children will go unexamined. Nothing will be fairer, and nothing will be safer for families, the unemployed and elderly people.
One third of civil advice will be cut. £1 in £3 will go, and 500,000 people will lose the benefit of free legal advice. 75% of legal aid for charities will go. I expect to hear about a lot more people losing their homes soon.
Cuts to the civil legal aid system mean that £1 in lost money advice will lose ordinary people £10 in cold hard cash- such as back paid benefits, managed debt, and rent that is repaid. The social costs of evicting families in some cases has been estimated at £34k- much of this taxpayer money, making the cuts appear not only vicious but ineffective.
The barbarity of the proposals can be viewed through the prism of the Human Rights Act. While the rights of assembly and free expression are something we have seen more discussion of following the student marches, the cuts directly engage with Article 8, which concerns the integrity of privacy, the family and the home.
Article 8 is a qualified right. This means that unlike certain absolute rights which can never be infringed, such as the right not to be tortured under Article 3. an infringement can be justified if it is proportionate. So failure to pay rent can usually be justified as reason for eviction in many circumstances.
By cutting money advice, Marylin and Charles would have had no help in obtaining the benefits they were entitled to, accrued rent arrears and would have lost their homes. Their article 8 rights would have been interfered with, for no very good reason. An ounce of prevention at the right moment would have stopped this at an early stage. Now this will no longer be possible.
Similarly, cutting immigration advice will mean that thousands of children in this country, some of them British, will continue to live in poverty because their mothers have the wrong immigration papers, and do not make the application for leave to remain on the basis of settled family life, under Article 8.
The consequence of this is that thousands of kids in the UK who have been living here for years, some of them British, are going to school without proper meals, don't have enough clothes to wear, live in overcrowded and insecure conditions, and will have poor later life outcomes. This is because by definition their mothers will not be entitled to work or claim benefits, and are often forced to work illegally at low wages, live on hand-outs from the churches and community, and in a case that I know of where the child was disabled,live in garages and give blow jobs to strangers to feed her family.
I'm putting my heart on my sleeve here. I have worked as a solicitor in a London Law Centre for over 16 years. As such, I am a poor man's lawyer. Cases like those of Marylin and Charles are by no means uncommon, and we have seen and heard stories that some people would not believe and many would weep over. But we keep on doing it, because overall we help make a big difference to people's lives, and thus make Hackney and the world that tiny bit better.
I love Hackney. I always have done, ever since I arrived for my first job as a pea green newly minted lawyer. In a seething melting pot in the East End where ageing cockney pensioners rub shoulders with people who are Jewish, Islamic, Schizophrenic, have dogs, have dogs on strings, are homeless, are failing at school, have gone to university, are HIV positive, drug dependant, nurses, Christian, affluent yuppies hoping that the Islington effect will improve the value of their homes, squatters, go to raves, Atheists, disabled people wheezing from the effort of the stairs when the lift breaks down again, fabulous graffiti artists, teenagers chucked out by their families and trying to make it in college when their EMA is going to be taken away, bewildered Eastern Europeans who came over in the boom then ended up living in underground car parks and catching TB, bewildered people certain that the last 27 cars whose numbers they have written down in green ink are following them and want to take away their kidneys, straights, gays, goths, punks, any sexuality or band, phlebotomists, mums with little kids, care assistants, teaching assistants, youth workers, GP's, performance artists, it's all endless. I can't help feeling dumb trying to help people who are all so different and feeling stupid because the job's limitless, all this job's limitless, you could say we don't make any difference sometimes but at least we're listening.
I've seen the best of people and I see the worst. I've spoken to women who have been tortured and gang raped, I've spoken to grannies worried about their electric fires. I know of several doctors who could not practice or teach because their papers were not in order, when the NHS was screaming for help. I know of countless students trying to better themselves and facing eviction because they have lost benefits by making a decision to acquire a university degree. I've seen startling acts of kindness by members of the public stepping aside and helping their fellow human being out of the gutter.
But I think Hackney, thus London, thus the world is about to get meaner and poorer. Housing Benefit cuts will see evictions rise (here's a thought- why not control rents if we want the Housing Benefits bill to be lower?). We're already a dumping ground for affluent west London; if Westminster refuses a homeless family help, all too often they are dumped on Hackney Social Services. If it accepts a duty, then they're housed here anyway, thus driving rents up. But incredibly, the Evening Standard and Shelter produce information suggesting tens of thousands of people will find Hackney too posh to live in. And my conclusion is that if we're too poor to pay the person who changes your bed-pan when you can't do it for yourself a wage she can survive on, then as a society we are making the wrong decisions between under-taxed bankers' bonuses and things that really matter.
I don't want to see this society that we are in danger of moving into. A society where inequality is entrenched; a society where the fighting mutt that is Hackney becomes an effete poodle is not where I want to live and work. So I ask you to check out and like Justice for all, the umbrella campaign group for Legal Aid, and trying to build a more civil society. See: http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Justice-for-All/109923889070414.
Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I rest my case. For now.