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?