Anyone claiming disability living allowance has their medical condition assessed by Atos, a hugely controversial French IT company contracted to the Department for Work and Pensions. Their refusal rate is alarming. According to the Guardian, as many as 40% of appeals succeed. Others suggest that the success rate is as high as 70%
What is this costing the taxpayer? There is worse news to come. When the infamous Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill becomes law next year, it will no longer be possible to get any legally aided advice for welfare benefits. Such advice is entirely removed from the scope of legal aid under the bill. This can be a very complex and technical area of law. The removal of legal aid will cover all benefit related advice and assistance (including appeals to the Supreme Court).
The Labour peer Lord Bach in a debate in the House of Lords at the end of last month estimated 78,000 disabled people will be denied specialist legally aided help in relation to their benefit claims every year. ‘This proposal is the exact opposite of any concept of the “big society” that one might want to consider,’ he said.
Ministers claim that such claims are ‘comparatively easy’. That’s patently not true. The DWP guidance alone runs to 9000 pages.
So we have a major problem. There is the classic inequality concern – the state has the unlimited resources of its legal departments. A claimant refused benefits by an agency that has a remarkable ability to get it wrong, has no recourse to advice.
Far be it from me to suggest that there is agenda here…
So what do we do? The legal aid Bill had a severe mauling in the House of Lords last week. So might there be concessions – possibly.
But the only other advice is – don’t get sick or injured for the next few years at least.
Steve Cornforth is senior partner of EAD Solicitors in Liverpool and Huddersfield. Steve is the current vice president of Liverpool Law Society and will become President in December 2011. He has established its Access to Justice Committee to focus on the impact of current and proposed cutbacks in legal aid.