Tuesday, 3 June 2014


Basil came to the UK as an unaccompanied minor from Jamaica, fleeing death threats because of his sexuality. He claims asylum, which is his legal right.

Betty is the mother and sole carer of a British child, who is deserted by his British father. She asks the Home Office to recognise her leave to remain and care for her son, which is her legal right.

Basil is taken into care by Social Services and is granted leave to remain until his 18th birthday. Before his leave expires he applies again, but it takes 10 years for his application to be dealt with.

Betty receives a letter after 1 year telling her that the registration of her legal right to reside is being considered. Prospective employers are told that this letter means that Betty is maybe entitled to work, but it would be best to ring a hotline just in case, and anyway the letter expires after 6 months.

Basil has the right to claim benefits, but not to work. He also has the right to medical treatment. The former right is not observed and he loses benefits for 18 months because he cannot produce documents that are at the Home Office. He becomes economically reliant on sugar daddies or goes on the game, depending on your perspective. In his shoes I might do the same.

After a while Basil learns that he has HIV.

After taking the letter from the Home Office to employment agencies Betty learns that no one wants to know.

Employers face fines if they hire someone without proper legal documents. With 25 people chasing every job vacancy in Hackney, why should a betting shop (Hackney's growth industry) hire a single mum like Betty? Let alone a single mum with an official letter which says the Home Office has doubts about her right to work?

Basil can't get a GP because his papers are at the Home Office. I provide a solicitors letter. Hell, I go to the GP in person with a letter I have signed. He can't get GP treatment because no-one understands the paperwork. The GP receptionist tells me that she can't make exceptions and she needs something more official than a letter from a solicitor (with a solicitor attached). 

And here's the point. Today Basil has the rights to benefits and healthcare, and Betty has the right to work to support her British son. Yet even so they can't persuade anyone of this right. Even with a solicitor's letter. 

Tomorrow landlords will have a legal duty to ensure that before they grant a tenancy to Basil or Betty they check that they are legally in the country. Yet how will they know? Perhaps they can call the Law Centre.


Tomorrow there will be no Legal Aid for Basil and Betty until we know they have the right immigration papers. And as legal aid for immigration has cut us to just one lawyer, we will be less and less able to know.

The new Immigration Bill enforces strict immigration papers screening of tenants and patients. The new Legal Aid rules will stop us from stopping the cases where tenants are illegally evicted, and sick human beings are denied medical help.

Some of you will read this and feel a surge of delight. Here's to you Johnny Foreigner! Well done.

But consider. How am I supposed to verify that a white cockney with no passport and no driving license is British before I give her advice on preventing the loss of her home? No papers no help love, on to the street with you.

May I suggest that we should either have a reliable system to identify those who are entitled to state support or else have a system where those who don't qualify can wear this loud and clear. Perhaps a yellow star, perhaps a pink triangle.

At best these changes are xenophobic. At worst racist. I hope somewhere out there is listening. 


Friday, 23 May 2014


Being young in the real legal profession (social welfare law) must be a lot like being young elsewhere in the UK at the moment. The chances are that you haven't got a job, are scrabbling by you fingernails to survive and, to add insult to injury, increasingly you are expected to do unpaid internships just to fill gaps in your CV so that you can get a paying job at some dim and distant point on the horizon.

You will probably have huge debts from putting yourself through university, then law school. As many members of the admirable group Young Legal Aid Lawyers have recently said (find them here http://www.younglegalaidlawyers.org/), it's actually quite insulting to be expected to make money for the firm where you have achieved a placement, without being paid anything for your time.

I respect that. The labourer is worthy of his or her hire.

At worst interns are stuck at the photocopier doing a minimum wage job without a minimum wage. At best you take witness statements, produce bundles for hearings, sit on the phone to speak to benefit call centres or the Legal Aid Agency (actually, that's one of the worst tasks) but you're struggling to survive in London.

Unpaid internships are cheap for employers. There is good anecdotal evidence that they perpetuate the success of the economically privileged . Only those who have family who can support them can make it through the lean years when you're starting as a lawyer. Doh!

Let me nevertheless ask you to consider volunteering at Hackney Community Law Centre for a 3 month internship, or suggesting this to someone else who might be at a loose end. You can find the details here. http://www.hclc.org.uk/2014/05/were-recruiting-3-new-interns/

The reason we are asking you to volunteer for 4 days a week with an expense allowance of only £80 (currently unsponsored) is that we bloody need you. Actually, Hackney and east London needs you. I'm going to put on my Kitchener moustache.

The benefits cuts that we have seen in the last 2 years are as savage as I have seen in 20 years of practice. The levels of need are higher than I can remember. Colleagues who have been in the game for 40 years or more agree that there is something serious going on.

After all, there is a reason that numbers of people relying on food banks has shot into the stratosphere.

We want you to help families who have been stranded in this country with the wrong immigration papers so that children in our schools can eat properly.

We want you to help really disabled people who lose their sickness benefits win on appeal at a benefits tribunal. 40% win anyway, 68% win with your help.

We want you to help the homeless mum we saw today who, due to a Council error (they lost the benefits form) has to take her disabled son out of special needs school when she is made homeless and placed in emergency accommodation out of London. Exporting London's poor is no solution to a kinder future.

We want you to help fight race claims when an employer is racist, sex claims when an employer is sexist or homophobic, and we recognise that many worship their religion in loving kindness and should be allowed to do so for all our sake.

Law Centres are voluntary organisations. We do have salaried staff, but without volunteers we would lose a reason to exist and would struggle to survive. I want to thank two of our volunteer interns for the important work that they have done for us recently.

Erwin helped a client obtain a backpayment of Housing Benefit covering seven months. It is possible that thanks to his hard work a family of 4 may keep its home. Shame legal aid for benefits has been all but abolished. 

Ishaq helped Hilton and this week 2 clients were recognised as refugees. You wait forever for a bus and then 3 arrive. I'll be disappointed if we don't get a third victory soon. Shame that immigration legal aid has been cut to the bone.

Frankly, we're tilting at windmills. Please come and tilt at our windmills. If no-one is prepared to try, we will be a smaller and meaner society. And while you're at it, please celebrate all our wonderful volunteers.

Be our intern. Make a difference. 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014


When he was on patrol in Iraq Ryan stepped on the landmine that blew his leg off.

Five years down the line he has courage, but his brain is a mess. His spine is screwed up. He doesn't sleep much, he wakes up shaking. In the wee small hours of the morning he is alone.

A stump on a leg is sore long after the event. You get itching, you get bleeding. In hot weather like we've been having in Hackney the problem is worse. In winter not so bad. Ryan doesn't like to go out without his leg on, as people stare, and most days he uses crutches.

He is refused Disability Living Allowance (DLA) after an examination by a Jobcentre doctor. One of the reasons is that the doctor notes he could use a wheelchair to get about. The Jobcentre tells him to use a wheelchair and stop being so silly.

A year after Ryan's claim for DLA is refused he gets a Tribunal hearing. After half an hour he is awarded the highest possible level of benefit.

The day afterwards Ryan's application for Employment Support Allowance is refused. He gets 0 points. He needs 15. The Jobcentre still believes that if he used wheelchair and stopped being a big Nelly he could get a job. Even though in Hackney at least 25 people are chasing every job. 

We send off another appeal.

Shortly afterwards Ryan's Housing Benefit is suspended, and he receives a Notice to Quit.

Ryan chooses to walk on a false leg, because he wishes to walk on two legs- he's trying to be normal. He gave up his youth for a fight in a far away land that felt inevitable to him at the time, but the friends of his childhood are dead or broken now. What he needs now is a chance to hang on to his dignity.

I can't help wondering whether the reason that Private Ryan has fared so badly in our benefits system is that his name is is really Private Hassan, who served in our wars with our allies, but not our own armed forces.

In other news Legal Aid has been cut for benefit appeals by 99%. Best to sweep all that under the carpet.


Thursday, 27 March 2014

Rain Homeless Babies

Angela was turned out of her hostel by social services on a Friday last autumn with her baby of 6 months. The skies in Homerton opened and water fell like bullets in Clapton Pond, and they were on the street.

No-one from the Council would help because Angela doesn't have all the right immigration documents. With a name like Angela, she might be Eastern European (gasp).

Angela's baby is a British citizen, but he doesn't know it yet- bless. He's a happy fellow. He doesn't know he's homeless. He will soon.

My heart sank on Friday evening when I realised we had to go to Court.

24 hours a day, 365 days a year there is a Judge available, if necessary at the end of a phone, to deal with truly urgent cases. Cases like this where you called night-time social services already and they refused to help.

Like a Valkyrie Counsel swoops in, and we start a Judicial Review.

Near midnight a Court Order arrived telling the Council to put a roof over the head of a young mother and her homeless baby over the weekend.

It's the white horse moment. We have a magic piece of paper and by one mother and child are in an emergency hostel. The accommodation is extremely basic (no bedding), but we saved a family from the street for 48 hours.

In 48 hours Angela can talk to a social worker, visit her GP. Commons sense can prevail. By Monday it has, and the Council agrees to review its decision.

After 4 months of grumbling and wrangling the Council agrees that a destitute nursing mother with a young child should be helped until she can get on her feet again and get a job. Blindingly obvious really.

There is something that feels like common sense about a legal system that will protect very young children against the vagaries of Town Hall bureaucracy. Social workers and housing officers aren't evil, mostly they're people doing their best at a time when cuts mean that the safety nets are stretched to tissue paper.

Today Angela's family got the break it needed.

Tomorrow Legal Aid cuts would stop the Judge from stepping in. Cuts to Judicial Review will leave Town Hall unchallenged. The residency test won't protect those who have been in the UK for less than a year.

And  then we will see the hard rain.