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!


  1. I'm doing a PhD in community care law, that area of law that makes judges cry ('Some of the worst, if indeed not the worst drafted and most confusing subordinate legislation it has ever been my misfortune to encounter', Munby LJ). I also do some advocacy work with carers. I can honestly say that nothing prepared me for the complexity of welfare law. I wanted to cry after going on courses run by CAB, I honestly don't know how benefits advisors can know it all - let alone litigants in person who additionally are likely to have access to few legal resources to help them, and have to deal with the stress of poverty and impending homelessness. It's an awful, callous, bill.

  2. I'm delighted you are pursuing such an important area of study Lucy. Let's hope social welfare law doesn't become an exclusively academic pursuit! Thanks for the post.