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.
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.