I don't deal solely in miserabilism, funnily enough. The reason I joined up to the 4th service (behind the NHS, the schools, and the benefits system) was a sense of optimism and adventure. A sense that with the small assistance of my brain, and our common courage, we might achieve something for those who have fallen into a trap.
Maria is a smart Polish kid who's lived here 15 years. She has a kid now, is married, pays taxes. Her daughter is in school. When she turned up at the stall in Dalston market where she'd worked for 5 years she found it closed and her boss bankrupt.
The next day her husband, who has settled status but no job, moved out. Men!
The Benefits Agency advised her to claim Income Support as a single mother, who shouldn't have to work, then refused her because she stopped signing on. She claimed Job Seekers Allowance and signed on, and was refused because the job she had been doing had never been registered with the Home Office. Catch 22 at its finest.
Child Benefit was refused. Tax Credits were refused. Housing Benefit was refused. She faced eviction, but she contacted us and we fought back.
We got her her Child Benefit, her Tax Credits, her Housing Benefit, and appealed the withdrawal of JSA. It took over a year for her appeal to be listed, but this month we represented her and she finally won. It turned out that the Department of Work and Pensions has been using an out of date version of a statutory instrument on Eastern European nationals – known as the Accession 8.
Charla has had health problems and can't get the Social to call her back. She's been on Employment Support Allowance- a disability related benefit, but at an interview with an official she did badly, and her benefit was withdrawn. Her doctor doesn't think she's fit to work, but a non medically qualified official thinks otherwise.
Charla appeals, and the rules say she should get her benefit until the appeal is heard by an independent panel that includes a doctor. But her payments stop, and for three weeks she has nothing.
Charla is allowed to apply for a Crisis Loan in this situation- in effect an advance on her benefits. But if she manages to get though to the busy call centre she is told that she will be called back, then no-one calls. Or maybe they do, but her phone has run out of power or credit- as she has no money.
She comes in to the Law Centre, we phoned and she gets some money for the week end. Her ESA is reinstated pending appeal.
Legal Aid cuts would make this work impossible, because the government line is that claimants can get all the advice they might want or need from public officials- yes, those same functionaries who have refused them. Failing that the courts and tribunals- yes, those same agencies who put up signs informing members of the public that staff are not qualified to give legal advice. It seems that the system runs so well that there is no need for lawyers.
I ask them why they felt it necessary to come and see us. “Nobody listened to me until I got a solicitor” says Charla. Maria is even more dismissive. “They treat you like an animal until you get a solicitor”, she says.
So walking down the stairs from the tribunal the rain has lifted, the sun is shining, and Maria has her benefits. She's smiling.
“I wish I had a solicitor” says a guy coming out behind us.