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.