Sunday, 30 January 2011

3 Old Men

Dealing with piss stained old men and blind people can be disconcerting. Someone else should have to do with that. Perhaps a nurse or a social worker. For many this is a common reaction. For us in legal aid it can be another day at the office.'

Bruce is Australian and has been living here for 30 years. His father was born in County Down then emigrated. He's 80 now, and the house he lives in is falling to pieces around his ears.

Claude is legally blind and his kidney's packing up. He too has lived here off and on for 30 years, and has many children living in this country, who rarely visit him.

Ole was an accountant in Lagos, who came to London and married, and fathered children. The relationship broke down. Shortly afterwards he had a massive stroke.

All have a common legal problems, for all have no papers or have exceeded their leave to remain.

All lived in horrible conditions. Bathtubs filled with piss? No problem. Kitchens like a bomb site? What else. Stairs falling to pieces, basements filled with junk, I went and looked. No water, no electricity. It all stacked up. These places were worse than third world slums.

As a decent society we have doctors, social workers and housing officers to assist the infirm and the disabled. Unfortunately these three old men have allowed their immigration status to lapse decades ago, and although two have paid tax and national insurance, and one had an English grandfather, they are not entitled to any benefits, housing or, in Claude's case, renal dialysis that he was on the point of receiving.

What they do have at present is a right to receive free legal advice helping them to apply for leave to remain in the country, which may also be their right, or which might be granted on discretionary compassionate grounds. However under government proposals this right to advice will be removed, on the grounds that the procedures are transparent and simple. This of an immigration ministry compared recently by a senior Judge to a poorly run whelk stall.

Readers may have varying levels of tolerance in the abstract for foreigners who come here and then find themselves in a mess for whatever reason. But surely we can agree that when three people who between them have lived here almost a century need help, we should give it to them.

I explain to Claude that the reason he won't have a lawyer any more is that the system is so easy to deal with. His sightless eyes bulge in outrage. “That's rubbish!” he bellows, and signs our petition. 

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Wrong-headed, Wicked or Dumb?

We attended the all party parliamentary inquiry on Legal Aid today. The theme was, what impact will Legal Aid cuts have on MP's dealing with a constituent in a surgery?

Up to 60% of the basic maths in the impact assessment of cuts may be flawed. This is not promising.

CAB research on welfare benefits advice shows £1 spent in LA saves £8.80. Yet £22 million in cuts will deprive 13,000 people of a service, and stop test cases. That's one way of saving money, I suppose.

Cuts in immigration are fair because applications are "simple" - yet the House of Lords describes the legal process applied by the Home Office as "applying policy to dogma that Kafka would have recognised." As another Judge put it “I would ask rhetorically, is this any way to run a whelk stall?”

75,000 people will loses debt advice at a time when the Money Advice Trust thinks that the need for services caused by the recession has not even peaked.

There are only two possible ways to describe the Government's proposals; wrong headed or wicked.

Wrong headed, because any MP who stopped to think about the impact of these cuts would realise that they were hurried and foolish. Wicked because any MP who takes stock and votes for them anyway is doing something wrong.

Plain dumb, because when we close down all the voters are going to come to you, and set up camp in your surgeries.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

On the Dole- Catch 22

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.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Lobbying MP's

Went to Parliament on the 12th to support J-4-A's campaign launch. The plan was to invite your local MP to come and visit about the loss of civil legal aid for 500,000 people. That's slashing the number who can get this advice by 50%.

The House of Commons is a wonderful victorian gothic building that looks part cathedral, and part wedding cake. It seems timeless, and yet it looks like its melting. If you walk past the policemen who are careful to ensure that everyone has an umbrella (which is rather sweet), and walk through the metal detectors, you will arrive in a lovely gallery, with paintings and statues.

300 lawyers and clients came to the meeting. 6 MP's and 1 Baroness spoke common sense (as well they might). Sadiq Khan spoke for legal protection of vulnerable people, and Andrew Slaughter told me that the legal aid cuts could mean that tens of thousands of people will lose funding for their tribunal cases.

My organisation's 2 MP's were too busy to meet us, and I met my local Streatham MP fleetingly, but his researcher came and spoke to us.

A number of clients spoke movingly of their experiences, including a mother and her little girl who had found themselves homeless and were helped to find somewhere else to live by Shelter.

At least 1 government MP, including the member from Westminster came to speak with his constituents. And when asked the question why are you cutting LA, said “I know you give a lot of good practical advice, but why do you need to have lawyers?”

Well, let me see, perhaps because of the hundreds and hundreds of Acts of Parliament, statutory instruments, European directives, International Treaties, Codes of Guidance, Ministerial Letters, Local and National policy documents which define the everyday social and economic rights of your constituents? Not to mention thousands upon thousands of cases in the Lower and Upper Tribunals, County Courts, the High Court, Court of Appeal, Supreme Court, and the European Court of Human Rights?

It seems that we have a lot of work to do. We must persuade legislators that we're not all just tea and sympathy. Although why anyone should begrudge a sympathetic service with the odd cup of tea is beyond me.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Gone in a blink

Jeanette was almost catatonic when we saw her first. Suffering from intense Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and profound depression, she was terrified of strange men, and she also heard voices.

Oh, and she speaks French and a little English.

A victim of a bloody conflict in Africa, she had been imprisoned, tortured and brutally gang raped before she managed to escape and make her way to our shores. When she arrived we put her in prison for travelling on false documents. Then we chucked her out on the streets.

Her first asylum appeal was botched so she had no right to be housed or fed. Sofa surfing or sleeping rough, she was frequently assaulted and had her meagre possessions taken.

Her speech was slurred and she stared straight ahead. Psychologists call it lack of affect. Looking like she isn't really aware of anything else around her.

Telescoping a couple of years into a few lines, we got her housed by social services, got a new asylum claim in, supported her long term counselling by experts in the treatment of torture victims, went to court several times, and got her her legal status.

At which point she was evicted again.

Telescoping again, we referred with submissions, and she was refused by the Council on the grounds she hadn't been traumatised enough. Spoke to doctors, wrote letters, kept a roof over her head, studied legal cases, forced the DWP to pay her benefits, and finally the humane review officer conceded that she had suffered enough.

Finally she will have the right to be housed.

And finally the thousand yard stare you get if you're an athlete, a soldier or a war victim has begun to soften. “Ca va?” I say to her, and she smiles at my accent, and I think there's a bit of a twinkle in her eye.

This, I say to myself, is what it's all about.

Under funding cuts proposals, 90% of what we just did would not be funded. The Government's position appears to be that as all Jeanette had to do was deal with various government departments,who obviously make the right decision all the time (You what!), and thus she has no need for legal advice. So nobody would do it.

We have managed to deploy up to a hundred volunteers a year in some years. We're experts at getting people to pitch in for free, but the reality is that these cuts could mean there would not be enough gas to prime the pump and we would close.

The reality is that by cutting Jeanette's right to advice on her entitlements thousands of women in the future will fall further into oblivion. But let the reasons given by our government be at least honest.

The advice that all our Jeannettes have received should be professional, independent, competent and legal. It cannot be said that the various solicitors, barristers, doctors, volunteers and citizen witnesses that have been paid and given time were involved in anything other than legal proceedings. We didn't just do tea and sympathy. We did our jobs.

Let our government say that in a time where bankers have made us bust we can't afford proper services. Don't say the services we provide are anything other than expert.

30 years of giving free legal advice, gone in the blink of an eye.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A Ballad for Child J

"Child J, a 5 month old baby, died in the summer of 2009, when his mother, Ms K, jumped from a third floor balcony, holding him in her arms. She also died. An inquest subsequently found that she had taken her own life and that Child J had been unlawfully killed."

As the official learning inquiry observed, "Ms K was therefore without any source of income as a result of these [benefit] decisions." She raised this with a range of individuals and agencies, as well as pursuing formal appeals processes. Her General Practitioner wrote to the DWP.

Ms K was a French national. She came to England with her sister some years ago. She worked a number of jobs, thus paying tax and NI, and studied. On holiday abroad she became pregnant . Having worked and studied in Britain for years she stopped at around the time she was to give birth, then ran afoul of the benefit system.

I don't know the lawyers, social workers, doctors or benefits officials in this report, which is a document of open record. However the benefits decision shows that all of the professionals involved had to deal with a very bad set of rules regarding the rights of European mothers.

The trap Ms K fell into is called being a foreign woman, in a sense. But here is how it's done.

When a European national who has a job and pays tax and NI over here is injured in the job or loses work and signs on, he is entitled to benefits. When a French or Polish woman does the same then falls pregnant , she is advised, by the smiling and well intentioned clerk that she should claim Income Support, because as a woman about to give birth she shouldn't have to sign on.

Then if the mum isn't British they send a habitual residence test form. And then when they find out that she isn't working, she loses her benefits at the exact same time she's bringing a baby into this world. Because after ceasing to sign on, she ceases to be a worker. An generally speaking, unless she is a classified as a worker, she loses her benefit rights.

According to one argument the reason for the withdrawal of benefits is because pregnancy is not an illness, and thus if you cease work, you voluntarily take yourself out of the labour market.

This was an unusual Serious Case Review. "Child J was a well loved baby, who received exemplary care from his mother, until the point of his sudden death." A sudden depression was thought to have been a possible cause of these deaths.

The Panel judged that the stresses arising from being refused benefits would have been the most significant factor in precipitating the development of mental illness. So the sudden onset of depression, or perhaps suicidal lack of feelings of self worth was caused by money worries.

Not lawyers, not doctors, not social workers could manage to save Ms K or her son, Mr J, a loving mother who picked her kid up and walked into statistics. None of us managed to stop it.

It would be mean and cowardly for me to claim that I could have secured a different ending to this case. I didn't know the people, although I recognise the patterns. Social services can do more to help financially while benefit claims are going on, but try to save the money for emergencies. Lawyers struggle with a slow bureaucracy, and confusing and contradictory legislation.

I'm pretty sure that either the legislation is wrong , or the interpretation of those rules is wrong, or the level of service that Ms K received was wrong, because otherwise we must be living in an unhealthy society.

Here's one thing I know for a fact. If the cuts to Legal Aid proposed go through future Ms K's will not be entitled to legal advice. So what I think about what we could have done worse, or better, will soon become obsolete.

She paid taxes, she spoke French and English both. She had an English baby. I hope you're all as ashamed as I am.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Case for Legal Aid

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:!/pages/Justice-for-All/109923889070414.

Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I rest my case. For now.