This is why it is important that there is legal aid for people with benefit problems who are appealing to benefit Tribunals, writs Nathaniel Mathews. These are the cases that will not get help from April next year.
- Come next April, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act removes £350m from the £2.2bn legal aid budget by cutting entire areas of law from the scope of legal aid – including most areas of what is known as social welfare law including legal advice for housing and welfare benefits.
- This article first appeared on Nat’s blog Frontline Hackney.
Peter is schizophrenic. He doesn’t always take his meds. He was evicted on my watch a few years back for rent arrears (he didn’t sort out his benefit documents because – quite frankly – he’s a bit mad). 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, able to work. They took him at his word (ker-ching!).
Peter comes into our office wearing a builder’s safety helmet, bright yellow, like the Village People. He jabbers on. Anybody with common sense 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 common sense 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.
The Parliamentary issue is this. When LASPO 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.
It makes me sad, it really does. This was what Legal Aid was invented for. Helping mad people and teachers keep their homes to make society better.
Après nous, le deluge
Nathaniel is (in his words) 'a third sector lawyer who writes about what makes him mad, sad, and happy to be human' at http://frontlinehackney.blogspot.com.