Legal aid is still available – but don’t tell anyone

(to go straight to the poster listing areas of law for which legal aid is available, click HERE)

The message that legal aid remains for many areas of law is not being heard. A new poster campaign aims to address the problem.

Legal aid is still available – but it seems that the government is not enthusiastic for the public to get the message.

Since the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in April, which removed legal aid for huge swathes of advice areas, the take up of legal aid for cases that remain in scope has been much less than the Legal Aid Agency expected.

Hugh Barrett, the agency’s director of commissioning told the Legal Aid Practitioners Group conference that the take up of legal aid was significantly lower than the LAA had expected post-LASPO.

Last month, the Gazette reported that referrals to family mediation – the government’s flagship solution to the removal of legal aid – had plummeted in the three months from April to June 2013.

The number of couples attending MIAMS (mediation information and assessment meetings) fell by 47% and the number of referrals to family mediation dropped by an average of 26%.

Whatever the government claims about information being available on its website and through the telephone gateway, the message that legal aid remains for many areas of civil and all criminal law is not getting through.

A cynic might suggest this is what the government wants, keeping provision a secret will allow the Ministry of Justice to keep more money in its ever-shrinking kitty and give it the opportunity to claim that the demand for legal aid is falling, so it is right to cut funding.

The problem with this strategy is that it means many people are missing out on legal advice and being denied access to justice to enforce their rights.

It has been left to the Legal Aid Practitioners Group to step in to help rectify the situation. The organisation, which operates on a tiny budget, has paid a designer to put together a poster informing potential clients about the areas of law that are still eligible for legal aid.

Printing company Rap Spiderweb produced an initial print run of the posters for free and firms and advice centres can pay for additional copies to display.

All credit to the LAPG for producing it – it is undoubtedly a useful tool to help clients understand their entitlement to legal aid, but surely this should have been done by the government.

By Catherine Baksy in the “Law Society Gazette”, 30th October 2013: http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/analysis/comment-and-opinion/legal-aid-is-still-available-but-dont-tell-anyone/5038467.article#.UnGWfiOFOOA.twitter

 

http://www.lapg.co.uk/sites/default/files/A3Poster-email_0.pdf

Internal memos reveal fresh attacks on benefit claimants and job centre workers

The government is changing the rules to make it harder for disabled people to appeal when it takes away their benefits.

And they are clamping down on job centre staff who try to help claimants, in an effort to break an “appeals culture”, according to internal memos seen by Socialist Worker.

People claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA) can be stripped of it if they are deemed “fit for work” in controversial tests run by companies such as Atos Healthcare, known as Work Capability Assessments (WCA).

WCAs have come in for massive criticism from doctors as well as disability campaigners, and almost 40 percent of people who appeal against a WCA decision are successful.

The high appeal rate has been a huge embarrassment for the government—as it exposes how arbitrary and unfair their assessments are.

But instead of changing the system the government is making it harder to appeal against it.

From now on people who wish to appeal must do so by a tribunal instead of through the job centre. Job centre staff have been strictly instructed not to download and print the forms for claimants, but tell them to find the forms themselves from the tribunal service.

This is a process that many claimants will find difficult, particularly if they lack internet access and printing facilities or suffer from mental health problems or learning difficulties.

Before they can even lodge a tribunal appeal, claimants have to ask the government to reconsider. There is no time limit for this process, and during this time claimants will not be allowed to claim ESA (disability benefit).

They can claim other benefits, such as jobseekers’ allowance (unemployment benefit), though this may later be counted against them when they argue that they need ESA.

Once they move to tribunal appeal they can claim ESA again—but job centre staff have been told not to make them aware of this right unless they explicitly ask. And WCA decisions are to be sent directly to job centre advisors in the hope that this “contributes to a reduction in appeals” too.

One job centre worker told Socialist Worker, “The government sees job centre staff as part of the problem for helping claimants stand up for their rights, and they are trying to curtail that.”

Instead of moving the goalposts they should scrap the unfair WCA system altogether.

By Dave Sewell  in ‘Socialist Worker 29th October 2013: http://socialistworker.co.uk/art/36746/Internal+memos+reveal+fresh+attacks+on+benefit+claimants+and+job+centre+workers

But don’t let that get in the way of the circuses. There is no bread

From the Facebook page ‘Atos Miracles’, 30th October 2013

The number of people who have ignored what we’ve been saying for the last 2-3 years and suddenly demanding to know what the hell is going on as soon as it directly affects them… yeah… that’s exactly what we knew would happen. People are too complacent, fall into an “I’m all right Jack!” attitude and tell those of us who can see what is going on that we’re over-reacting or that we’re “extremists” or conspiracy theorists, right up until they are the ones getting kicked in the teeth by this government and their corporate masters. There is such a bloody temptation to say “We TOLD you what was happening! Where were you when we were protesting against the legislation?” Oh, at home watching Britain’s Got Strictly Essex.

“It shouldn’t happen to us! We’re not scroungers. We’ve always worked/we’re genuinely sick/we’ve paid our taxes!” is the mournful cry as people realise that the government don’t give a damn who you are, or even that the fraud (and error) rate is only 0.7% (that’s seven people in every thousand claiming disability benefits) – they want to dismantle the benefit system entirely and force people to pay for private insurance (whom would we pay? Oh, companies like the very one that has been advising both Tory and Labour governments for the last 15+ years on dismantling the benefit system and the NHS, what a coincidence).

Did you know that some of us call able-bodied people “the not yet disabled”?

But don’t let that get in the way of the circuses. There is no bread

Single parents ‘biggest losers’ from IDS’ welfare reforms

Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship universal credit reforms will make life for working single parents harder rather than easier, according to a report out today.

The Gingerbread charity suggested there would be very little financial incentive for those in or out of work to take on anything more than ‘mini-jobs’.

Its findings are a setback to the Department for Work and Pensions, which is aiming to simplify a raft of existing benefits and roll them into the single universal credit in a bid to make the shift to employment a financially attractive one.

“The simple fact is that universal credit won’t deliver on its promise to make work pay,” Gingerbread chief executive Fiona Weir said.

“Single parents on low wages will be under considerable pressure to extend their hours under universal credit, but our research shows that financially, extra hours often won’t stack up.”

Non-working single parents will also lose out under the reforms, which the DWP is struggling to put in place before the next general election.

Yesterday the scheme began another phase of its national launch with its adoption by Hammersmith and Fulham council – a significantly scaled-back step leading Labour to dismiss the reform as being in “total chaos”. 

“Labour supports the principle of universal credit but not only is the delivery of this flagship policy in crisis, it’s increasingly clear that the government has got elements of the design wrong too,” shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said, commenting on the Gingerbread report. “This analysis shows that the way the government is implementing these changes means it will be single parents in work who are hardest hit. And under the new system single parents who want to work more hours will see more of their extra income clawed back by the Treasury.”

The DWP insists it is making steady progress in rolling out universal credit, however.

“This is a massive cultural transformation that the government had to get right,” welfare reform minister Lord Freud said. “We introduced universal credit in a slow, safe and controlled way in Manchester and this careful approach is working. We will build on these successes.”

Gingerbread has suggested increasing the amount claimants can earn before universal credit is withdrawn and reducing the steep rate at which benefits are taken from earnings as ways of making the changes fairer for single parents.

The charity also says other steps to help low-income families are not helping single parents either. They are losing out when compared with other households when it comes to increases in the income tax threshold.

“It’s worrying to see that single parents will, on average, be worse off under universal credit than they are now,” Weir added. “In the current difficult economic climate any new reform to the system must make lives better for families, not worse.”

The DWP said three million households would be better off as a result of universal credit – and that lone parents would gain an average of £5 a month. “Around 500,000 working lone parents will see a greater incentive to increase their working hours and for the first time they will be able to have help with childcare even when they are working for just a few hours,” a spokesperson said.

 

By  Alex Stevenson in Politics.co.uk, 30th October 2013: http://www.politics.co.uk/news/2013/10/30/single-parents-biggest-losers-from-ids-welfare-reforms

 

Victory For Cait Reilly – Workfare Was Illegal Says Supreme Court

This contains a link to the actual judgement

the void

poundland-workfareA unanimous verdict at the Supreme Court has judged that the workfare schemes in the Cait Reilly case were illegal.

This follows the DWP’s appeal after a lower court had found that the almost all the  Government’s workfare schemes were illegal.  Iain Duncan Smith was forced to rewrite the law after this judgement retrospectively making these schemes legal.

That will not be overturned by today’s judgement, although a Judicial Review has been launched by lawyers questioning the legality of this decision.

The judgement can be read at: http://www.supremecourt.gov.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2013_0064_PressSummary.pdf

When Iain Duncan Smith rewrote the law on workfare he did not include the Community Action Programme.  This was the six month period of workfare on which George Osborne’s mass workfare scheme announced at the Tory Party conference is based.  It is hard to see how this scheme, which is due to begin in April next year, is now legal unless…

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The suffering being caused by benefit sanctions

The Citizen’s Advice Bureau has published a report on benefit sanctions, what they are given for and how they are affecting the people who’s benefits have been taken away (minimum period of 3 weeks, maximum of 3 years!) The vast majority of people receiving these sanctions had no other source of income, and have been left destitute and with lasting long term debt. The number of sanctions handed out  has rocketed from around 130,000 in 2009 to 2 million in the past year. Most of the people being sanctioned are on Job Sieekers Allowance, but there’s a sizeable minority on invalidity benefits.

The report makes shocking reading and I recommend following the link at the bottom of this article to read the whole thing. Here’s what some people reported as happening to them because of these sanctions:

Most people had had to cut down on food (70%), and/or on heating (49%) and travel (47%). Almost a quarter of respondents had had to ask for a food parcel.

Some respondents had been left in a very desperate state:

Buy damaged food, market scrounge about at end of day

Used the skip from the local shop for food

Starved and lived off what I had. Scrounged food from bins and only left the house after darkness fell. Had no electric or gas so had to get ready-to-eat food. Struggled and went without nothing for 3 days with just bread and a block of cheese that my friend kindly gave me as it was past its sell by date.

Begged in the city.

Slept on a park bench and in empty shed.

I stopped doing anything and have become agoraphobic.

For those with children, it was particularly hard to cope:

Went without meals so my son could eat. My sanction should have been for a week but they took 8 weeks to pay me again, despite me constantly phoning etc. I also complained and received no reply.

And there were other adverse effects on children:

My daughter stopped attending school. I couldn’t afford the taxi she needed to get her there without distress and trauma.

Other consequences of the sanction

The final survey question asked respondents for any other comments on the effects of sanctions on them or their family. More than 150 respondents took the trouble to complete this question, often with extensive accounts of the serious long-term effects on their own physical and mental health, the social and material impact of serious financial hardship, and the adverse effects on their family’s well-being

The possibility of ending up homeless because of rent arrears was a frequent worry:

Because my housing benefit wasn’t paid for 3 months and still hasn’t been reinstated I’m facing eviction and I’m a full time carer to my adult son.

I’m worried housing benefit won’t be sorted in time for my rent as this could make us all homeless yet again and the council have no homes. Last time we were homeless was a result of fleeing domestic violence and me and my five children were put in B&B by the council in two rooms.

Several people said they had been unable to leave the house because of lack of money:

It’s all getting too much. We are now prisoners in our home, no point going out, can’t buy or do anything

The anxiety created by the imposition of a sanction had a serious effect on mental health for many people. A number of people described feeling suicidal because of the stress of the situation and several said they had made suicide attempts. For those with pre-existing mental health problems the effect of the sanction was to exacerbate their condition:

I suffer from severe mental depression and this has definitely not helped my condition. Still currently without any money even though I am doing full time work experience and not sure how I am going to eat until the sanction is lifted.

I was on ESA due to a nervous breakdown in 2009 and have not been given even the slightest chance of recovery as I have had this constant & losing battle with DWP/ATOS ever since. I stay with a friend who feeds me, but have been suicidal for a long while now. I have now given up completely on claiming any benefits at all, as I can no longer face the prospect of the never-ending challenges. I have absolutely no hope left in me at all.

I had no income, and had to borrow from my parents (who are also on benefits and don’t get much income. It has affected me mentally, and I am severely depressed and having anxiety attacks which I have never had before becoming a jobseeker! I believe this is going to affect me in the long run, and I will find it difficult when I do find work, because I am now petrified of speaking to people. I was very confident and bubbly before I became a jobseeker, now I tend not to leave my house unless necessary.

I wasn’t long out of a safe house for domestic abuse I tried to commit suicide and my doctor had to put my medication up and I have to get someone to collect them weekly.

For others there had been effects on their physical health, because of lack of money for an adequate diet or because of stress, or both:

I had to ask my mum to help me with my gas and electric and wasn’t able to fed myself properly and [that] didn’t help as I have coeliac and my family were appalled that I had to live like that for 4 weeks. My health suffered because of it.

I’ve lost over 2 stone in weight through lack of food.

The stress has made me physically sick with irritable bowel syndrome, which I haven’t suffered with for many years. I have previously battled depression and am hoping I won’t end up back on antidepressants again.

I am a type 1 diabetic and I ended up being hypoglycaemic several times.

We couldn’t afford a meal each day so often didn’t eat for days on end. I suffer with hypoglycaemia and need to eat, so this left me with many black outs, confusion, incredibly weak and sick.

I lost weight and got ill. I felt like a scavenging wild animal, not like a human. It’s a miracle I didn’t end up homeless.

The sanction had wider impacts on family relationships in some cases:

My mum has been taken to court and fined for not being able to pay the shortfall in council tax and is struggling to pay the rent arrears accrued when I was sanctioned and the strain has quite literally smashed our family to pieces – I feel like a burden on her and have felt suicidal on more than one occasion.

The stress put us both in hospital with stress-related problems. We were refused hardship payments but later got this [revoked] because we went to CAB and Shelter. It had a massive effect on our son, who at one point was being considered for going into care because we couldn’t provide for him.

My partner also cares for me so he was left incredibly stressed and upset from this situation due to firstly no money (he has to look after me full time pretty much) and secondly my conditions and mental state became so hard to cope with (it also affected his mental health, he attempted suicide when he could not cope).

At 52 years of age I lost my home and my 21 year-old son, who has had to move in with his girlfriend’s family. We are both sofa-surfing with absolutely no hope for a future of any kind…I stay with a friend who feeds me, but have been suicidal for a long while now. I have been kicked out of my mother’s household due to being sanctioned and I’m now homeless.

This had a devastating effect. I am separated so couldn’t have my children as couldn’t afford the bus fare to travel for them.

For those living with children, the effects of the sanction were particularly hard:

It was so difficult. Had no gas or electric. Sent my children to my mum’s 5 out of the 7 days of the week.

For nearly a month I didn’t get any money before I got hardship [payment]…At this time I was pregnant with my daughter and had another 2 kids in the house…If it wasn’t for my child tax credits and borrowing money I wouldn’t have been able to feed myself. We done without heating during the winter because I couldn’t afford to pay for gas.

I went begging on the streets to get money to buy food as my partner is 7 months pregnant

Many respondents wrote at considerable length about their feeling that they had been very unjustly treated.

Whilst I was on the sanction I visited jobcentre on 3 different occasions to ask how I was to live on no money for 4 weeks? On each occasion I was told there was nothing they could do. I later found out that the correct procedure was to give me a hardship form to help me out. I eventually got the form and handed it in. The jobcentre have since rejected the claim as it was handed in too late. I sent in 3 reconsideration requests explaining the jobcentre was at fault for not telling me I could claim this and again all 3 requests denied…I feel the jobcentre have deceived me to avoid paying out money.

A number felt that the limitations which their ill-health placed on their ability to work, or the kinds of work they could do had not been given adequate consideration:

I am epileptic and can’t apply for certain jobs that’s why I am limited, I apply for 5-10 jobs that I can do, but it’s not enough.

I can’t work, I take 23 pills a day and I’m also diabetic, yet the group they put me on was for work? They have no right to take money away just like that. Totally unfair, I’ve lost half a stone as I can’t buy enough food to eat and as a diabetic I’m supposed to eat 5 small meals a day. No chance. As I don’t, I’m open to foot infection, eyesight problems, coma or death or amputation. I’m worried sick. Also stress brings on a relapse of other condition.

There were numerous complaints from respondents that they had not been told about the sanction, and had only discovered when they found their money had stopped, that they didn’t understand the reasons for the sanction or that the sanction had been imposed unreasonably, given their circumstances.

I believe it was the Work Programme that had been in the wrong in the first instance for not reimbursing claimants travel expenses when they should be, yet I was the one punished for not attending 1 hour of job search when I couldn’t afford to go.

The original sanction letter made no sense and I couldn’t understand it at all either. It didn’t give any dates as to when or IF the sanction would end.

I had no idea I had been sanctioned until I got a letter from the housing association stating that my housing/council tax benefit had been stopped due to suspension of JSA which I wasn’t even claiming

In other cases the injustice stemmed from poor administration which led to a sanction being imposed when the claimant was not in any way at fault:

I was sanctioned for not supplying information regarding my job search. The forms I was given did not ask for [this] information.(The wrong paper work was given) My paper file was ‘lost’ during the appeal process, and was ‘found’ in secure waste awaiting shredding, My file (the one being destroyed) contained information that refuted the validity of the sanction.

I was sanctioned by the DWP on their error. They never changed my address when I sent in a change of address form. They later admitted it was completely their fault and an admin error. They left me without payments for six months and didn’t reply to a single letter and they wouldn’t speak to me on the phone as they held old details for me.

Respondents felt that it was unfair that the expectations with which they had to comply did not apply to the agencies they had to deal with:

The sanction was so annoying. A4E missed three appointments. When I attended they said to go home. But I miss one appointment and get sanctioned.

The sanction I got was for not attending triage…It was them that mucked up the dates and I was the one that paid for their mistake.

Read the whole report here: https://skydrive.live.com/view.aspx?resid=CB5ED957FE0B849F!350&app=WordPdf&authkey=!AJTbB-gzwsSCayQ