Tuesday, 20 November 2012


Kenny is only twenty. After two years looking he has managed to get a job. He works 60 hours a week in a bar. They are keeping him on and he is getting a raise. In an economy where kids just can’t find work he is someone who deserves all the support we can give, yet when I see him as Duty Solicitor he is in rent arrears and risks losing his home.

It turns out that when he finally got the job he took a small pay day loan to celebrate and thank his parents for supporting him. Then, when he had to repay the loan, which had an apr of 200% he had no money left from his wages, and had to take another loan. Soon all his money was going to shady companies whose dodgy representatives door-stepped him and even his parents. He looks haunted.

Kevin is a pensioner, living with his adult son. Because his son works in a shop and earns reasonable wages Kevin gets little in Housing Benefit – the son is expected to contribute the rest in a part of the regulations known as a non dependant deduction.

Yet Kenny is in rent arrears that climb steadily. He too may be evicted. His son too has taken out pay day loans, and finds his income being hoovered up by the lender. The son is terrified of taking time off work to get debt advice in case he is fired. In any event the queues at the local CAB are round the block.

Kyle is a postman separated from the mother of his six year old daughter. Over the summer his kid started to visit more regularly and he took out a small pay day loan so he could give her a few treats. It looks to me as if he is trying to make sure his relationship with his daughter does not suffer because of differences with her mother, he’s trying to do the right thing as a responsible dad.

You guessed it. He’s in rent arrears too.

Perhaps 1/50 or 1/60  of the clients that I now see as a duty solicitor are in thrall to brutal lending companies which may be called Wronger, or Conga or what have you. These are working class people in social housing with modest salaries who literally can’t put food on their table because of punitive rates of interest on pay day loans.  These are far more deadly than crack; a small taster is enough to hook you for life.

Back in Law School they taught us that there were rules about usury, and the legislation then in place was enough to crack down on most of the unlicensed loan sharks that we saw in the 60’s and 70’s. Today, if you look around your high street, you will see that pay day loan companies are a growth industry, popping up like barnacles alongside betting shops- that other modern mecca to despair.  They will tell you that what they are doing is selling services specifically designed for very short periods- yet perhaps half of their income comes from repeat borrowers.

Far from being curbed by the existing legal machinery, we see that Newcastle football club has looked at putting a pay day loan company on their shirts. The dodgy criminal with a cosh in his pocket of old has undergone an alchemical change, and acquired a glossy corporate face and sugared words that hide pure poison.

Standing up in court I tell the District Judge the plain facts. How wages meant for rent and other essentials evaporate the moment they arrive. In every case we get an adjournment so that the tenant can get debt advice.

Yet if I have managed to achieve something today, tomorrow paints a bleaker picture.

Firstly, although Legal Aid presently funds debt advice, from April 2013 this will be so scarce as to be non- existent.  For every 100 housing cases funded by Legal Aid, the government is awarding 4 debt cases. We will be hamstrung before we even start.

Secondly, alternative sources of credit for people on benefits or low incomes will become almost non-existent. The Government Social Fund which used to provide cheap loans and grants will soon disappear, and Credit Unions are shutting up shop all over the country.

While the Bank of England’s interest rates are as low as at any time since its foundation, corporate sharks are trawling the economy, and we see no sign that Government is prepared to use any of the levers available to it to stop this from happening.  

As a child I was raised a Catholic, and I remember well the story of Jesus scourging the money lenders from the temple for the sin of usury.  If I had been raised a Moslem the concept of any interest rate would have been anathema- far more so these new vampire squids that feed and feed and make corporate merchant bankers  models of restraint and probity by comparison.

The truth is that anyone with a moral compass will recognise these greedy pay day loan companies as deeply wrong. Why can’t we do something to stop them.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Mad & Sad

 This is why it is important that there is Legal Aid for people with benefit problems who are appealing to benefit Tribunals. These are the cases that will not get help from April next year.

Peter is schizophrenic. He doesn’t always take his meds. He was evicted on my watch a few years back for rent arrears (he didn’t sort out his benefit documents because- quite frankly- he’s a bit mad). We got him back under a roof after he was released from hospital.  Now he has failed his benefit test because at his benefits interview he told the ATOS  professional he’s right as rain, able to work.  They took him at his word (kerching!).

Peter comes into our office wearing a builder’s safety helmet, bright yellow, like the Village People. He jabbers  on.  Anybody with common sense can tell he’s very ill.

The difficult legal issue we have representing him is that he has told the authorities that he is perfectly well. We must tell the tribunal that, contrary to our instructions, we think our client is very ill indeed.

Complicated legal issues arise.

Paul is a dedicated teacher. His wages vary and the details of his family composition vary, and he sends details of the changes in his circumstances to the Housing Benefit Authority from time to time, as he should do. 

After a few years he receives a 28 page letter telling him that he owes £17,000.

The legal issue at Tribunal is, firstly,  is there an overpayment  of benefits-yes- and secondly is it recoverable. The common sense rules are that if there is an official error these sums are not recoverable- unless Paul should have reasonably understood that the officials were at fault.

More complicated legal issues are in play.

At the Tribunal hearing the Judge  decides that Paul could not have reasonably known  that he was being overpaid. The debt is written off. He keeps his home.

Peter and Paul  have kept their homes because lawyers argued the law in a Tribunal and won. Yay!

From next April we will be banned from defending Peter and Paul. The rules will be so refined that unless an unrepresented appellant gets funding for  a second appeal Tribunal, you can kiss your ass and your home goodbye.

The Parliamentary issue is this. When the long winded titled Legal Aid and Punishement and Sentencing of Offenders Bill was fought through Parliament promises were made that appeals on to benefit tribunals on a a point of law would be funded.  

Now in the details we learn that almost no-one will be represented. It was all a lie.

It makes me sad, it really does. This was what Legal Aid was invented for. Helping mad people and teachers keep their homes to make society better.

Appres nous, le deluge.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Call Centre

On the phone to a Housing Benefit department, to find out why my client is going to be evicted this month. Peter got too sick to work and claimed benefits, which have taken a few months to kick in. I want to know why nobody is answering my letters about his Housing Benefit claim.

Instantly my heart drops. Digital sirens assure me that a East London Council uses fab data protection procedures, I am invited to use touchtone options that steer me seamlessly from rubbish collection to ongoing claims information. The promise of a real live human voice is always there, but proves tantalisingly beyond my reach. Just at the point that I am about to speak to a human being a cheery mechanical voice bids me good day and refers me to their website.

As any fule know, Council websites are often designed to prevent rapid access to services. You try to find any information about the rights of homeless families put on the street through no fault of their own, and you would not know that the Council must house them.

After an hour I manage to speak to a human voice. She sounds surprised and scared, and tells me it would be better if I called at a low demand time (say midnight).

None of my letters have been logged on by the Council.  Thus the guy on the phone can't  discuss Peter’s case with me. Not even when I point out that a family will shortly become homeless because the Council keeps losing its mail.

“What do you suggest then?” I ask Mr Call Centre. “I’ve faxed you, I’ve written to you, this week Peter took copies of my letters to you and was turned away. How can you help me to stop a family from becoming homeless?”

Mr Call Centre advises me that Peter should have visited his local office and asked to call the Housing Benefit Department for a special appointment (since the cuts, a free citizen can’t come in off the street with his documents, you need a special appointment). This cheers me up. “Can I make an appointment for my client Peter? He will bring copies of the documents”

Mr Call Centre pauses. No-since they haven’t had any letters I am not authorised to make an appointment for Peter to bring in the documents that they have lost. He makes a special point of saying that if I were a real lawyer I would understand this. That’s me in my place.

I politely thank Mr Call Centre. Quixotically I dictate a letter of complaint, send it by email and by fax with copies of all the previous correspondence, advise my client to make an identical telephone call begging for an appointment, then hurl my telephone against the wall.

I don’t know what makes me more  angry. That a so called trained lawyer has had to spend an hour on the phone to speak to Mr Call Centre talking rubbish, or to think that every other resident with Housing Benefit problems must spend an hour on the phone they can’t afford.

Sir Robin Swayles declared some time ago “I have an ambitious vision for this borough, and that's because Newham's people are ambitious and forward-looking too. I'm determined to deliver the very best services and make sure local people get the most out of the Olympics and regeneration of the borough.” 

As I scotch-tape my telephone together, it seems that the true problem is that with cuts starting to bite in East London’s poorest boroughs,  local services are delivered behind the opaque barrage of call centres where staff do not have the training to make practical common sense decisions.

Dwindling numbers of trained Council officials that know how to call the shots are cloaked and inaccessible because of Mr Call Centre.  Should they not be open and transparent and admit that the service they are giving is increasingly inadequate?

 Dream on.









Friday, 28 September 2012


Down to City Edge on Mare Street last Saturday  for the Inspire event.

The building used to be a hub of a community college just across the road from where  the Council benefits office used to be, close to St Joseph’s  Hospice in Mare Street. That’s too many used to be’s in my book, but this is broke UK.  The Hospice is still there, and it has a nice garden. 

City Edge is a conference centre squeezed to the back of an expansive office building where space has been lost to small shops. A hand drawn sign refers me to a narrow access route down the side of the building. I sit down on the sidewalk  to roll up with my liquorish papers and mild tobacco, an astute and competent security officer questions me, then leaves me alone with my nicotine addiction.

Before I know what’s what, I’m in a pleasant sunlit space in a large room, where stalls have been set up. There are some 150 people milling around.  I am pleased to see so many charities setting their boards up to help young people find a job.  I am particularly thrilled to see a banner for Equity, and to chat to a guy in Taggart .

Unexpectedly dancers  burst onto the floor, formidable women in their fifties dressed as Mary Seacole, young girls with great poise and dignity strutting and swinging. There is a flurry of African drums, one played by a studious boy in spectacles.

Before we know it the dancers have the audience up on the stage, instructing them on the art of viewing  your derriere as the chalk that draws on the blackboard, 1-2-3-4.  It turns out this dance troupe opened and closed the Olympics.

The event was Inspire, a community initiative bringing together groups such as DIG, private tenants who are coming together to give self help over issues such as rip off rents, shady practices over deposits and a support network for tenants who need help talking to their landlords.

Wilma bought a flat, then lost it. Struggling with serious structural problems with her property she faced shoddy building standards, an indifferent freeholder and eventually unemployment. She’s sofa surfing right now, but working on a play about the loss of dignity that comes from being evicted onto the street. She hopes to join a co-operative. I bet her play will be a corker.

Wendy is under 35 and was renting a small bedsit paid for by Housing Benefit. Under new Housing Benefit rules (the “room rate”) she was expected to move into digs with other people her age. She asked the Council for transitional help and they said they would-  after months of delay and four days before the Court date. Too little too late, she was evicted and now has no secure home.

We write on big pieces of paper with magic markers, swap tips.

In this Borough, home of the Silicon Hub of Hoxton, many private tenants cannot afford  the accommodation, however rotten, that is available on the market. Young people and those in early middle age who rely on benefits are expected to crowd in with strangers, yet comparatively few landlords make such arrangements available. The ones that genuinely do run houses in multiple occupation (HMO’S)  often run brutal slums.

I leave after a couple of hours, knocked out after the flu virus . Why is it that so much young to middle age talent is wasted, when dancing children make it all look easy?
Who ate all the pies?











Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Ship Shape

Aiden has a job. In fact he has two.

He has a British wife, and British children. Born in a former colony, he came to this land with a valid visa and settled. He pays his tax and national insurance.

He is resident in these green lands of Albion on a spouse visa, which enables him to lawfully work. In the fullness of time he is entitled to apply for leave to remain and settle, and this he does.

What could be fairer? Aiden has played by the rules. Yet one day he is suspended from his job, because his employers think that his papers are not in order.

The trade union warns that a profound unfairness is in train. His employers are blind to his explanations, for they are frightened of the new rules that say that, if your working papers are not all ship shape, they could be fined and prosecuted.

Aiden's papers are all ship shape, as it happens. He put in his application for permission to remain in time, it's all documented. The rules say that if you apply before your visa expires, you will continue with that same status until the Secretary of State makes a decison- even if this is after the date of your previous visa. The reason for this rule is obvious- the government takes a long time in making its decisions, and almost all the people who played by the rules and put in their application in time would otherwise become overstayers .

His trade union refers Aiden to us, and we explain the rules to the employer. It's a bit sad then that his employers move to dismiss him .

Their problem is that when they check with the government enquiry line the application has not been logged into the government's database.

It's even sadder that after Aiden's MP intervenes and asks the UK Border Agency to confirm that they have received Aiden's papers, they send a letter acknowledging receipt, telling him that his papers are all in order, and refering his employers to a database designed to confirm to employers that they are not breaking the rules.

It's even sadder that when his empoyer enquires twice of the government hotline , Aiden's details still haven't been entered. Sack the varlets!

Finally at the eleventh hour the database is updated, and Aiden can go back to work. I can't imagine how he might be feeling about his employers, or about our government.

On this occasion lawyers, trade unions and an MP saved Adie's job in the nick of time.

Last week the Legal Services Commission announced 40% cuts in Legal Aid cases they will fund in Hackney from next April. Tomorrow then, a father of two may be sacked, because although he is lawfully present in the UK, Legal Aid is being deliberately cut to the bone, to ensure that it is not possible to find the facts and tell the truth.

A story about a father of British children, playing by the rules for his family, will not be told with the voice of law, because of Legal Aid cuts.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Piss & Vinegar

Here's me coming back from my holidays then, full of piss and vinegar.

Client A has lost her sickness benefits , known as Employment Support Allowance, or ESA. In order to win sickness benefits, the names of which change like the blowing winds, a real inability to operate in the workplace in spite of all is now required .

I have no problem with this in principle. Our decent British system should try to to sift those who should work, those who could, and those who can't.

The way in which measurement of disability now goes is a number of tests called descriptors. Score 15 points if you can answer questions from whether you can pick up a milk jug with one hand, to whether you get upset and cry in the queue at Tesco's.

It's all like the gymnastics at the Olympics, save that you have to compete for failure, in order to win that dubious prize, last place. You win as little as £65 a week, for the recognition of your disability.

Client A scored no points on her incontinence descriptor, because although she pisses herself on occasion, and more so at night, she has not "voided her bladder" completely, in a regular fashion. Thus, she has only pissed herself a little, but not voided her bladder every time she has to meet the work czar at ATOS.

Client B had his leg blown off by a landmine. He stumps around defiantly, and keeps failing his tests because he turns up to his interviews. If he failed to turn up, he would be failed anyway.

The Paralympics are supposed to make us all warm and fuzzy about this once in a lifetime opportunity to see the victory of human endeavour over adversity.

The bitter truth is that in the same year that Oscar Pistorius was allowed to compete in the mainstream Olympics, after defeating the laughable claim that he was advantaged by having his lower legs removed and substituted by two curly sticks, ATOS may be gaining kudos from being an official sponsor.

The "tightening" of the descriptors means that, whether or not ATOS staff fairly apply the rules in their assessments, and there is plenty of evidence that the interviews are slap  dash affairs done by rote, disabled people will still fail. For example, in the category manual dexterity points used to be awarded for being unable to turn a star headed tap, being unable to pick up a £1 coin, turn the pages of a book, use a keyboard or mouse, and being unable to pour a 0.5 litre open carton. Consideration is also given to the ability to perform one or more of these tasks with only one hand. In the new rules the categories have been significantly narrowed. Thus a person must be completely unable to press a button with one finger , or turn the pages of a book, or pick up a coin, or use a pencil or keyboard or mouse.

It may be objected that a person who is profoundly disabled yet able to press a button with at least one finger has a possible future working with computers say, or in a call centre. Certainly I would accept that people with disabilities are often desperate to work, and where ways can be found for this to happen they should have that opportunity. But most recipients of Employment Support Allowance will be expected to take part in some work related activity anyway in the present scheme. By making the Work Capability Assessment even harder to pass, a claimant is instead forced to claim Job Seekers Allowance, forced to constantly seek employment where in practice there may be very little work that is available or suitable for their skills.

Sometimes DWP staff dealing with JSA claimants realise that there is simply no point in a claimant who was failed their ATOS test claiming work related benefit, and advise claimants to make a fresh ESA claim which will, in the fullness of time, be refused again. Yes, the system is so bad that one part of the Jobcentre is deliberately frustrating the actions of another.

Forty per cent of people who appeal the withdrawal of benefits win at Tribunal. Seventy per cent win if supported by a Law Centre, CAB or similar. As Law Centres and CABs are being deliberately closed down in Legal Aid cuts, do the maths. This Government wants disabled people to fail their benefit tests.

And that is like rubbing salt into fresh wounds. Or, shall we say, vinegar.





The Court is closed after 2 pm when Red Pepper arrives to lodge our last day, last gasp appeal. Various legal documents have to be delivered, and we have put our hearts into making sure they get there on time.

Unfortunately this time Red Pepper is denied access to the Court, because it has closed early. It seems the County Courts often close at 2pm in London these days, perhaps on account of the Olympics, who knows? They call it operational efficiency.

If Pepper can't get in the door with an appeal and get a receipt, the appeal may be out of time.

If you are a lawyer the worst possible thing is to hear the words "Your application is late . Your case is struck out." You lost dude, you suck. How to explain this to the client?

The result could be that a homeless family will be flung onto the streets. Or then again, it might concern a deduction of as little as £15 a week from a family with an income of £120 for a Council Tax debt, with the threat of prison.

OK, in homelessness appeals the Court has a discretion to accept an appeal out of time, and when we act promptly by filing the next day we are graciously given leave to do so, after a time. In the circumstances, the Court couldn't reasonably have done anything else. But drafting additional papers explaining the circumstance and then taking the papers back takes more time and ups the cortisole levels for everyone.

OK, prison doesn't happen very often for Council Tax, but it's a worry. It could happen, which is why there is Legal Aid debt advice (for the present). It is not so far from Mr Micawber in Dickens' London, who went to jail jailed for debt, to the East End in Olympic Hackney today, full of golden medals. A surprisingly large number of people still believe that one can go to prison for debt, which is usually not the case (save for wilful nonpayment of Council Tax).

It would be a cheap shot to criticise the Courts for inefficiency, but District Judges up and down the land are grey faced by the amount of documents they have to deal with- archaically known as "box work".  Cuts to front line staff and closure of Courts means the papers they get are increasingly unreliable.

The sad truth is that cuts in funding mean that there are less Court staff trying to do more, as possession claims rocket, and something has to give. Another sad truth is that in public life, very little works properly any more.

In order to enforce the rights of poor people effectively, we rely on the Courts and Tribunals to be open. It would be a pompous hypocrisy to say that I always wish Justice to be swift, as often administrative delays work in my clients' favour, but there are certain cases where it is crucial that legal documents can be filed on time.


Wednesday, 27 June 2012


On to the new and modern library next to Hackney Town Hall. It is my turn to do the new legal surgery that has popped up like a mushroom, with all this unprecedented June rain, but now we have sunshine- and me sweltering in my three piece suit.

The library on the first floor is light and airy, a sort of hangar full of books as far as the eye can see. Miranda moves skilfully up a staircase occupied by at least two classes of six year olds, but I get bogged down on account of my big leather pilot bag, filled with pens and calculators.

Still, it's nice to know that in this day and age this many kids are getting access to so many books for free.

We put up our shingle, set up the chairs, and as if by magic thirteen people people turn up for a bit of advice.

There are one or two cases of small claims by prospective tenants jilted of holding deposits by estate agents on arbitrary grounds. I try to help with drafting and explain small claims procedure, but belatedly realise that you can't cram too much information into 10 minutes. I help fill forms in, but my handwriting is far from perfect.

There are several cases of benefit problems where we are able to advise people about who to phone and what to do. This feels a bit like cheating in some cases, because sometimes you know that when you give a piece of paper or a phone number to a confused human being you're just giving them the brush-off.

I speak to Betty who won her disability appeal two months ago, after a year's delay. The Judge says he believes her and the refusal letter is invalid. Still they will not pay her benefits. I write a sharp note.

That should do the trick then.

Benny was injured when he lost a leg in one of our wars, the side he was on when he lost it isn't too relevant, but the ghastly injury is. He may lose his small one bedroom flat because he is under 35 and and the new Housing Benefit caps are kicking in. Under the new rules he is expected to share a flat with other young young spring chickens his age, and Housing Benefit is capped at £92.13.

The Housing Benefit cap makes little allowance for his fever dreams, his biterness, the reason no-one wants to share with him because he is still in pain and haunted by ghosts.

Alice notes my pony-tail and suggests I might be interested in the Slimelight club in Angel , spiritual home of all Goths. I tell her that I used to be a member but haven't had much of a social life recently. Briefly we trade make-up and wardobe tips (the velvet frock-coat or the PVC?).

Agnes, a heavily pregnant teenager turned out by her mother tells me she went to Newham Homeless Person Unit and was told that she was not in priority need until the baby is born (lies), then to Hackney who told her she had to be living locally for six months before she can apply (not strictly correct). She's managing to stick to it in college even while she sofa-surfs.

Overall, mostly a nice bunch of people. I feel I can't avoid taking several cases and blank out the voice shouting at me in my head about the pile of unanswered correspondence on my desk back at the office.

So then...

We're putting up a free pop-up service on a trial basis on a Monday afternoon. After 6 sessions we've seen about 75 people. There is clearly a need. Some of the signposting we do is valuable in itself for your more switched on types, some people groan when they realise they're going to have to battle through to this or that faceless agency, and more people than we can cope with would benefit form some further advice or representation for complex matters.

The bad news? As Legal Aid is all but vanishing next year from social welfare law, it makes no sense to hatch up schemes to give yet more advice for free, does it? I mean, aren't we tilting at windmills?

The good news? Like Baldrick in Black Adder, we have a cunning plan.


Tuesday, 12 June 2012


Paulie was born in Jamaica, but he has been living here since 1970. He came when he was a teenager to join his parents, aunts and uncles, who had arrived in the UK in the early 50's. They were of the generation that came here on the good ship Windrush from the West Indies , to work as porters, clean toilets, do the work that we native born Britons did not wish to.

Now he is in danger of losing his home.

His parents, aunts, cousins, siblings have long since managed to obtain British passports. Some have gone back to the islands, some have settled accross London and beyond. They have worked, paid their dues, somehow survived the prejudice that met them on their arrival, when it was common for boarding houses to post signs saying "No blacks, no dogs, no Irish", then the backlash of the Notting Hill riots.

Paulie lost his passport in the 1980's. He has worked as a hospital porter, a builder, a jack of all trades for almost forty years. He's at an age when he should be thinking about retirement. And yes, he's paid his tax and national insurance.

In the clampdown on foreigners without verifiable documentation Paulie lost his Job Seekers Allowance three years ago. Incredibly, he still signs on every two weeks, attends work focused interviews, tries to get a job. Sadly, his absence of immigration papers are likely to have the same effect on potential employers, frightened of fines, as on the Department of Work and Pensions.

Basically, nobody is prepared to stick their neck out and accept that Paulie has a right of abode in the UK. Unless all the paperwork's in order and apple pie it's more than their job's worth.

Sadly, the Border Agency has lost most of its documentation prior to 1986, when they computerised. In most other cases, it's too much trouble to look.

With less than two weeks to prepare for the Tribunal dealing with his Housing Benefit appeal, my heart sinks. He is two years in rent arrears. It is notoriously difficult to obtain documentation that will satisfy the UK Border Agency that a person has been present continuously for 14 years and should be granted Indefinite Leave to Remain (and anyway once granted that would confirm benefits entitlements going forwards, and would not resolve the issue of his present entitlemets).

The fateful day arives, and my best bet is that we will get an adjournment to gather evidence that has long since disappeared, that we will find ourselves in a paperchase for employee records that have long since been shredded, for employers that may no longer exist. A vista of rolling adjournments beckons.

Then a miracle.

The Judge believes Paulie, and shoots the Council's refusal decision out of the air on grounds that are so technical that it makes my head spin. She goes on to point out that, if the Council rephrases the refusal thus and so, Paulie will find himself in the same pickle once again.

Then another miracle. The Council is convinced that Paulie is exactly who he says he is. They will pay up for some two years in Housing Benefit. He will not lose his home.

Who deserves the credit for this signal victory? As a lawyer, I should be blowing my own trumpet.

In truth the credit lies with Des, the income collection officer for Paulie's landlord who fought City Hall every step of the way, when the culture is increasingly to evict, write off the arrears and start again. It lies with Judge, who spotted a technicality where I had not. It lies with the humane Council official, who looked Paulie in the eye, believed him, and chose not to do him dirty by changing a line or two in another letter and send him back on the appeal merry-go-round.

In truth, the credit lies in loving kindness.

Yet let me say this. In April 2013 the guillotine comes down on Legal Aid. There will be no funding for Paulie to straighten out his immigration papers, for the State has passed seamlessly from the proposition that the application system should be efficient and humane to the conclusion that there is therefore no need for lawyers. It is unlikely that funding will be in place for any of the work that we did today, or the work that Paulie needs tomorrow.

Paulie offers me a gobstopper. It's bad for my teeth, but I accept. Sometimes you need to taste the sugar.



Friday, 11 May 2012

Identity Theft

I think I've been the victim of identity theft. Or, rather, I think our flat has.

We live in a flat in south London, the one of six or seven in a converted house from somewhere around the turn of the century before last. Some of us own and the rest rent on short term lets directly from the freeholder. Consequently, over the years people come and go, and it is easy to lose track of faces and names.

Hoards of letters arrive addressed to people who don't live in our block. There is a shared hallway and no individual post boxes. Sometimes there is more post for people who are not here than people who are, which says something about modern life.

Much of it is junk mail from desperate pizza companies and even more desperate estate agents, the latter assuring us breathlessly that they are desperate for vendors in a vibrant market.

By chance I open a letter addressed to the Occupier, expecting yet more grovelling to put our flat into the rental sector, but what I find is notification by British Gas that the resident, Ms Francis (let us say), having incurred £1,800 in unpaid gas bills, a warrant has been obtained to disconnect us on the 17th of June.

Of course the letter doesn't tell me anything useful like details of the Court, so I can't write to the magistrate to explain the mistake. 

I find a letter addressed to Miss Francis at our address and decide to open it. It is a bill from British Gas for £1,800. This is really weird, as I know for a certain fact that no Ms Francis has lived here for 24 years. Now getting used to rifling Ms Francis' mail, I discover a letter from Barclay's in Mumbai relating to a high value account. Well, to me a minimum deposit of £15k is seriously high value.

I call nice Colin from British Gas and spend an hour and a half on the phone. He believes that I am the true resident and the the reason for the confusion must be that Ms Francis moved in next door four years ago and they accidentally closed down our account and billed it to her. He says his priority is to stop us from getting disconnected. Just as I am about to give him my contact phone numbers we are disconnected.

Barclay's website advises me to report suspected fraud using my secure log-in details. Sadly I do not have Ms Francis pin number, so I decide to call the telephone number provided.

I call Barclay's. London, not Mumbai- Doh! I spend 26 minutes listening to voicebots and kak music. Finally a human voice. Nasty Kyle eventually tells tells me to write to Barclays head office in the UK, as he can't do anything about their bank in India- not even make a record of my call . OK, perhaps I shall. I wonder if Barclay's will pay for the phone call and the postage stamp?

I call British Gas, and vaguely helpful Carrine assures me she will e-mail Colin who will call back within 24 hours.

You guessed it. Nobody calls.

I think I'm going to go to Hackney Police Station and report a theft soon. Or will I get in trouble for opening someone else's mail? And anyway, a theft of what?

A theft of the identity of the place where I live, it seems. Or a theft from a bank in one country that isn't the same as the bank with the same name in another country. Or maybe theft of my peace of mind. 

I am starting to become uncertain whether I really am me and have a good look in the mirror just to check. It looks like me all right- now to persuade everyone else to believe it. As I don't drive and my passport has expired, I have a sinking feeling this is not going to be easy. 

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Justice Project (Twitter ye not)

Twitter in the courts? The concept is antithetical to lawyers. We servants of the court eschew exposure, espouse confidentiality, we do our dirty tricks in private. Our paper darts and legal daggers work far better away from public scrutiny.

And to be blunt, 140 characters a case is not sufficient to justify our juicy wages. “But My Lord, our fees!”- Devotees of Private Eye will recognise Mr Justice Cockle-Carrot, who always extends the case beyond lunchtime so that posh boys in wigs can justify their cash. Yet here I was, participating in a project where messages would be sent to the world in real time from the courtroom.

With me is The Justice Gap's own Jon Robbins, here for the Guardian in a project to send tweets throughout the day.

Our first hurdle is that journalists being able to twitter in Court (with permission from the Judge) is brand spanking new, and moreover confined to cases heard in open court. Thus, in criminal or employment trials, to name but two, where members of the public are entitled to attend anyway, Jon can send his little chunks of data onto that yellow-brick road that is the internet for all to see.

However in home repossession cases the hearings are in private, for a very good reason. The legal issues involve the prospect of loss of a home, which like the right to a family life and correspondence that has not been intercepted, is a qualified right enshrined in Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. This is the right to family, home and privacy.

I sweat about what we are doing the night before. Will I make a tit of myself to readers in Singapore or Siberia? What the heck am I doing?

Fortunately Stephen, a stalwart Duty Solicitor for over 30 years catches that ball in the morning shift, before I'm due to start. He has a word with the Ushers, then a word with the District Judges, who don't mind the challenge.

At the same time, over at Romford County Court another journalist on the same project is barred from all the hearings.We must be doing something right.

Working as a duty solicitor in a housing court in Hackney is remarkably different to the world of Cockle-Carrott. District Judges have 5 to 10 minutes or so to decide whether someone will lose their home.

Rita has lived in her council flat for 17 years. Her mother is very ill . Rita knows how to cook, that's her job. When she goes to take care of her mum instead of working she can't pay the mortgage. She is £4k behind but has over £100k in equity. Result? "Out on your ear or sell your home in eight weeks."

“This will affect the rest of my life”says Rita, and Judge is harsh but fair. “Sell up or pony up” the Judge says (I paraphrase). Rita doesn't understand, and I hope we have enough time for her to make the right decision together.

Bob has kids and a marital break-up. He sends wads of cash here and there, now child support for his kids, now his rent. He assures me he is ashamed at the thought of accessing benefits, and so he did not get the help he was entitled to when he needed it. He's a second generation immigrant, with the sparkle of an entrepeneur in his eye.

I want to swat him on the back of the head, 'cos he's been paying tax and NI into the system for years. When he loses his job he's legally entitled to certain benefits and tax credits.

Yet, I respect him. No-one has handed the world to him on a plate, and here is a person that will pull himself up by his boot-straps, and the rest of us with him incrementally.

Jon's thumbs blur on the tiny device he is holding.

In the last case of the day a young refugee, let us call him Ishmael, makes a Lazarus application. Evicted this morning, he seeks to revive his tenancy from the dead. I play Captain Ahab, ranting about the great white whale, yet I know in my heart that I am sunk and floating on a coffin.

It seems to me that the intrusion on matters that affect the home and family should rarely be sampled by the media. It seems to me that private agony at the loss of your home, or the intrusion of the state into your correspondence should not be paraded by all and sundry.

Yet, antithetically, if the world knew how casually you might lose your home, 140 characters to your neighbours or the Judge would not be enough to explain. 

Score draw? Duty Solicitor 10 saves, two replays, one loss on penalties. Curiously, equal to the win rates of both Roberto di Matteo and Gus Hiddink in their spells at Chelsea football club at time of writing.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Nutso or What?

On every other Wednesday in the afternoon up to 18 clients pitch into our office to get free immigration advice. Unfortunately our reception is quite small, and at times it feels that the members of the public we serve are trapped upright like sardines.

Every Wednesday morning up to 12 clients pitch up to get free employment advice. Like Vienna sausages in a tin, we wriggle around each other to get to the door and politely try not to step on anybody's corns.

Some Thursdays there is room for the client's children to do the colouring books with crayons. For about a month there was a toy road in the toy box, and the children were delirious with joy slotting the pieces together and driving matchbox-like cars (I'm dating myself here) round and round cardboard trees.

One time the Kurdish mother points out that there are staples in the toy-box, which is an obvious health and safety hazard. She didn't put it quite like that.

Eventually all the children's books and good toys get nicked. Although as a lawyer I must frown on theft, particularly at an impressionable age (learn right from wrong kid!) I can't help thinking that is what the toys were given to us for.

We're lucky enough to work in a beautiful building in Lower Clapton Road, smack dab next to Hackney Police Station. The dividing wall with the police station says “Property of the Metropolitan Police”. In case you should find a wall with those words on it lying around on Streatham Common, that wall has been stolen.

Across the road from us is a charming park where five years ago someone was murdered. For a while they put wreaths and cards on the Victorian ironwork, but these blew away, like memories.

There is a plan afoot by the Coalition Government to stop people with money problems from accessing local free legal advice from charities and other providers. It is called the Gateway Scheme.

Under the Gateway Scheme people with money problems who still qualify for free Legal Aid could come in to our reception and wait at the end of a line. Well, a line's a polite phrase. Anyway, when they get to the front and we are able to understand that they have debt problems, they would have to call an official government debt line and ask for permission to speak to us.

I'm not joking.

Fortunately the House of Lords has given the Gateway Scheme a good kicking. Unfortunately, rumour has it that the Commons will rush it through on a Money Bill. As far as I can tell, this means the Government has spent all the money it will already and if there is a vote of dissent in the Lords against it it will override it.

This means all the time spent in the Lords debating the issues will be a complete waste of time. In effect, the passing of an Act of Parliament will have been a charade.

Nutso or what?

PS Can we have some more toys and books please?

Sunday, 4 March 2012

British Kid

Irina is from Bulgaria. She has a child who is British, and in school. Her son understands that Mummy and Daddy fight.

For many years Irina has lived with a British partner who does not let her work or draw Child Benefit. He doles out money, he locks her out of the property with her “half caste” child when he wants to, he pushes and squeezes her, he generally abuses and controls her.

When he is happy she is a lovely bird in a gilded cage. For many years she has been frightened. Her son shares in her fear.

I sit and sift through the paperwork and realise that if Irina were to flee her home with her child, we should have a cast iron benefit system in place to help this victim of domestic violence and her British child. Sadly we do not.

Instead, she has literally no rights at all to welfare benefits or public housing. Or else she has, but proving it is strewn with mind bending mine-fields, impossible to read European directives, a smattering of immigration law, a bit of family law, a lot of inter-disciplinary work, confused public agencies with bad guidance.

I call the women's refuges and learn that if Irina has residency problems, they can not help her. Even refuges for battered women are under the cosh for cash. If they can't be sure they can get Housing Benefit they can't run as a going concern. The staff are ashamed and apologetic.

So I have a case where Irina and her British child must potentially fight their case tooth and claw in the immigration court, in the benefits tribunal, in the housing courts, in the family courts. All this to ensure that a British kid and his mother can get away to a place of safety.

Under the new Legal Aid Bill this is an issue we won't care about much longer, because from April 2013 the practice of social welfare law is dead in all but name. There won't be any funding in place to protect the interests of a British child with a foreign mother like Irina,

When did we become so cruel? When did vested power become so cynical?

When did they decide to make Law Centres Extinct?

Friday, 17 February 2012

Benny & the Cop

A few years ago Benny called us up to tell us that his landlord had turned up with the police to put him onto the street. As you may imagine, he was quite upset. As it was six o'clock on a Friday, I was quite upset. I rescheduled the appointment with my pint by a few hours.

Benny lived in a house in multiple occupation. That is to say, a number of residents rent bedrooms but share facilities like kitchen and bathroom. Sometimes these are four bedroom flats, sometimes vertical Victorian buildings that once were respectable homes for a middle class family with three or more servants. Sometimes the residents are families squeezed cheek by jowl, sometimes youngsters trying to hack it.

Each case is a snap-shot of people living on the margins in expensive London.

In Benny's case the landlord had turfed out one of the tenants by means unknown, and moved a relative 's possessions into the property. He's trying to get around the protection from eviction legislation by pretending that his family was living there all along, and just taking lodgers.

Thus, he would avoid going to Court . He would give reasonable oral notice and then put his lodgers onto the street.

I ask Benny to give his mobile phone to the Constable, and I ask him whether he is confident that an illegal eviction isn't occurring, which is an offence by the way, and I have some papers which make me worried.

The Constable tells me he's just here to keep the peace, and that he's not trained to assess civil disputes. The landlord goes away and eventually gets a proper order, and Benny has to leave.

So far so dull. What worries me is this.

Although the Police have ample powers today to bust the fake tenants who sport forged tenancy agreements and trash the landlord's possessions in the back garden, they choose not to. They wisely accept that they are not trained in civil law. Or they lazily prioritise drug smugglers and and gang killings. You take your pick.

The LASPO Bill will criminalise squatting. At this point the Police will have to arrest Benny, unless he has a lawyer conveniently at the end of a phone. And the Police will then in many cases assist illegal evictions. Which is an offence.

With evictions climbing as Housing Benefit caps start to bite in posh boroughs like Westminster, and in less posh boroughs like Hackney, I ask myself this question. Is it cheaper to criminalise alleged squatters, and force the CPS to learn housing law, or is it better to allow charities and other legal aid firms fight it out in the civil courts?

Friday, 20 January 2012

Violence in Office

The Law Centre is surging with people. More and more have eviction notices, court dates and tight benefit appeal deadlines. Volunteers and staff perch in every office, trying to advise the poor and the upset.

The photocopier hums as Kim meticulously turns over piles of paper and documents. A member of staff is sitting with Pierre, a shattered refugee who, it turns out, has been drinking. We don't have alarm bells (heck, we ain't got staplers) and he becomes florid, incoherent and waves his arms around. All at once he becomes terrifying.

One of the other lawyers speaks some French, and eventually he seems pacified and burst into tears. His history is truly heartbreaking, he has serious mental health concerns and suddenly he falls asleep.

We shepherd him out without calling the police and he seems brighter and more happy. "Adieu"says the member of staff rustily and Pierre looks crushed. "Au Revoir" says the member of staff and suddenly his smile is like a sunbeam. Man, this French is tough.

Years ago Patrick, a sad old man drinking and lost from his family was evicted from social housing for being an annoying drunk. We argued that he was vulnerable because he had a tendency to self harm. The Authority deemed the risk low. We explained to him why this was the end of the line.

Patrick perfectly understood the legal niceties of risk assessments, and on the day of his eviction arrived at our office blind drunk and cut his wrists in the bathroom. An ambulance came and he survived. He also bled all over the donated children's toys which forced us to throw them all away.

We have a policy that prohibits abuse of staff, racist ranting and threatening behaviour. Yet vulnerable people with severe mental health problems increasingly come to our door. It seems we are the favourite port of call for those who drink at  the last chance saloon.

Eventually another client begins to scream. It might be something that the Council or their landlord is doing to them. It might be blame and recrimination towards our advisers who have not warded their misfortunes with legal argument sufficiently. In the end it makes little difference.

Working in this environment takes its toll. All that stress, all that shouting, the adrenaline becomes poisonous after a while. Experienced lawyers, trained to work with the worst of the worst, can't keep on working in these conditions.

In a sense I agree with Kenneth Clarke and Jonathan Djanogli, sponsors of the Bill that will strip most funding from social welfare Legal Aid. If the public services worked properly, and they should, I would happily hang up my shingle, because there would be no need for a lawyer.

No need for a lawyer then? Yet cases for the Social Worker and the Therapist keep on arriving at our door. When we are gone, where will these people, these human beings, be sent to next?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Happy New Year

So I come into the office. Among other delights is a sea of letter from the Legal Aid people querying our funding applications or outright rejecting them. My particular favourite concerns Danny, a former showman who wants to sue his former landlord for disposing of his life's belongings when it shouldn't have.

In Danny's case we have a letter cutting off my client's legal aid because he has not paid his contribution. A letter of the same date confirms receipt of the same contribution. I try to telephone the Legal Aid people but the recorded message tells me that they have cut their telephone access by 4 hours a day "to improve efficiency". So I will have to write. Unfortunately they can take between 4 weeks and several months to reply. And meanwhile, Danny's case remains in limbo.

This stuff must be dry as dust to non lawyers, but as Frontline's readership now includes people in Macedonia, Venezuela and Australia (thanks guys my hubris needs constant fuelling) there seems to be some interest so here's a crash course. In an emergency we can grant 4 week's Legal Aid. However currently the Legal Aid people are taking eight to twelve weeks to put the Full Legal Aid in place. This means that typically we risk being unfunded, or not knowing when we're funded, for weeks at a time. Working without funding threatens charities, already falling like flies, and leaves the client exposed to legal difficulties. What to do?

In the the case of Denise, who has been in the UK for 16 years after arriving as a child, she risks losing her home because the Home Office is years late in looking at her case and meantime she can neither work to support her family, as she wishes, nor claim benefits. Through some legal jiggeryy pokery we manage to issue a judicial review in the High Court to get Social Services to pay her rent and provide her with £30 a week on food vouchers, and appear before a District Judge in the County Court to suspend a warrant of execution (that's the magic piece of paper that you moves you from your home onto the pavement).

Then we have to keep on working but don't know whether we'll get paid for the subsequent twelve weeks' work while we wait for Legal Aid paperwork to arrive. Had we done nothing, Denise could have lost her case at the next hearing. Children would become homeless. This is not why we come into the office every day. So we're gambling on it all working out with our funders and do the work anyway, but too often we manage to secure a triumph for the client, then are told two thirds of our work won't be paid for after all.

Meantime they've already cut our funding by 10% across the board, in anticipation of a further 64% cut to the number of people in Hackney who will lose civil Legal Aid if the Bill goes though.

The cuts in one guise or another are already all around Legal Aid. Happy New Year. It's lucky I'm such a philosophical fellow.