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.