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The people who will suffer the most as legal aid is cut

This is a crosspost from Nathaniel Mathews at the Hackney Community Law Centre. The full post is here.

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 has schizophrenia. He doesn’t always take his meds. He was evicted on my watch a few years back for rent arrears. 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 and 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 commonsense 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 commonsense 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.

When the long-windedly 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 point of law would be funded.  

Now in the details we learn that almost no-one will be represented. It was all a lie.


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