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.