Islington Law Centre, Islington People’s Rights and Islington CAB, organised a “Justice for All” open morning at the Islington Law Centre on Friday 3rd June 2011. Students from the BPP Law School were strongly represented at the meeting, particularly the BPP Pro Bono Unit. Jeremy Corbyn, MP for North Islington, whose appointment to the Commons Select Committee has been widely praised is pictured here (on the left), with @legalaware from the BPP Legal Awareness Society, based at the BPP Business School (middle).
At worst, the reforms represent the end of legal aid for social welfare law. The Law Centre is paid for by legal aid, and grants locally. However, in large city areas such as Birmingham and Glasgow, there will be many people who will not have access to legal aid.
Jeremy Corbyn MP (furthest right) and Cllr Catherine West (middle), the Leader of Islington Council, were invited, and attended as, the main speakers at this event by Ruth Hayes, Director of Islington Law Centre (furthest left). The meeting was to discuss concern the deep concern that the Government’s proposals for legal aid will deny hundreds of thousands of people access to justice. This event was a chance to find out more about current legal advice provision in Islington, understand what the Government’s proposals would mean for low income Islington residents, and add your voice to the campaign. The event targeted primarily at an audience of staff, volunteers and members in community organisations and other front line agencies, whose own service users may rely on legal aid to find out about and exercise their legal rights. Cllr West provided that councillors have a vital role in explaining access to legal services, which can feed into making legal policy in the Council. Catherine emphasized that this reinforces a community culture.
Jeremy has always been a strong advocate of putting the case for Parliament. He felt that it is very important to change the debate from a pressure by the legal profession, into pressure by people who are worried about access to justice. Jeremy emphasised that we are currently in the midst of the Consultation on legal aid, and he personally is involved now in the Select Committee for Justice, as stated above. He said a big thank you to Islington Council for opening the Islington Law Centre in Upper Street. There is no competition in provision of legal aids, but there is a desperate need for support and advice. All of the stakeholders appear to be co-ordinating legal information effectively.
In his short thesis, he wished to expose a few myths. The national budget for legal aid is about £2bn, which is not much compared to a nuclear missile. The Government is trying to cut £350mn from there, which is a substantial cut. They happily claim that barristers and solicitors are paid a huge amount on legal aid, because of the “greed of the legal profession”. Some barristers do command high fees in the High Court, and there is a very small number of high profile cases. However, legal aid does support a lot of law centres nationally; and many law centres have ceased to function. Claimants are now lost in the system, because a number of law companies have disappeared. There is a lot of work being done on minimal money.
According to Jeremy, the Government also argues that more can be done through mediation. Jeremy believes that this is difficult – for example, in a contentious immigration case, legal aid can be applied for in relation to detention aspects. Jeremy believes that this is dealing with the symptoms, not the issue. Every case of disability living allowance is being analysed in an aggressive way; about two-thirds, however, are successful on appeal. This does not appear like a sensible use of public money, as the process is very traumatic. Finally, the Government also puts great store on mediation of ‘solved problems’; however, mediation does not often work, and is a “pipe dream”. You need good quality legal representation in certain cases of family aid. Legal aid provides the basis of doing that. That is why Jeremy is angry about the criticisms on the basis of cost. Legal aid can be considered as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the welfare state, and has to be paid for. Access to justice should be available to all, not just those who can afford it. The Government has had to delay the closing date on the consultation, because of the sheer volume of consultation reports. Jeremy will be arguing as central to the Commons Justice Select Committee that access to justice is very important, not just large corporations.
There is a petition, to be closed before next week. Jeremy advised the submission of the large numbers of petitions early next week, perhaps with a hand-in to the Ministry of Justice within ten days.
The Islington Law Centre will be celebrating its 40 years’ anniversary shortly, and offers a full range of legal services in ‘social law’, including education law, employment law, housing, law, immigration and asylum law, and welfare benefits law . The Law Centre offers a range of provisions, including initial advice, appeals and representations in higher courts. It has an open-door policy, and does not charge clients for its services. Three days a week the clinics are staffed by City law firms. The City law firms have urged the need for such volunteering activity to continue. The BPP Law School pro bono has been heavily involved in such work. A range of services could be threatened, however. The future could mean that there could be no welfare benefits service at all, and without legal aid there will not be opportunities for claimants. Similarly, the volume of debt cases is massive, and there will not be legal aid work available unless a claimant’s home is at risk; this will create huge strains for people. Employment law means that claimants often do not have access to large trade unions, often in small businesses with complex conditions. In education law services, some families report that the young people were so distressed, that they were actually suicidal. Such law work was held on Saturday, as a result of people who were now working, because they had re-integrated into society. The scope for housing law is limited, meaning that a lot of agencies will not survive. Immigration is a real concern in Islington, including the loss of representation by some firms such as Fisher Meredith. Asylum cases will still be in scope.
There will be a ‘telephone gateway’ to access to legal aid, problematic for people with insufficient credit, or have communication difficulties as a result of disability. It is the intention that about 75% legal aid cases will be dealt with by phone, taking away the genuine community component of legal aid. A lot of cases are multi-factorial, e.g. housing, debt and immigration, making such telephone consultations sub-optimal. A national phone service makes no use of local knowledge, diluting the effect of local specialist knowledge which can offer detailed, excellent, practical local support. A telephone service, in summary, is therefore iniquitous. It turns out the Equality and Human Rights Commission are seeking to implement a telephone advice, which is impossible for complex cases, particularly for claimants with communication difficulties. Jeremy represented the situation as a recipe for disaster, and needs to be properly supported as appropriate, for example with translation services.
“Islington’s People’s Rights” does offer an outreach service. The majority of welfare benefits work involves outreach, in mental health, disability, addiction, and other vulnerabilities. The changes proposed in legal aid will have a huge impact. A lot of claimants are going through an assessment, often at first stage, but increasingly at second stage, following appeal (despite failing at assessment despite a strong case). The impact of legal aid ceasing for welfare benefits and debt will have a devastating effect on that client group, and cannot be underestimated. If you are losing your home under 30, you might escape this lack of scope. Certainly, people are not optimistic about the effect of the reforms on the work with vulnerable members of the community. The need for services continues to get greater,
Lorna Reid, Welfare Benefits Advisor in the Islington Law Centre, drew special attention to the phrase, “undeserving poor” against, say, people with serious vulnerabilities such as medical addiction problems. Islington Law Centre currently has a success rate in turning over 80% of cases on appeal, and there is an increase in jobseekers’ allowance. A vast number of families are being pushed below the poverty line, people who cannot keep up with their debts, and their health suffers. The Council has run a successful form-filling clinic; 78 of 182 people had their claims were followed-up, and satisfied on the first claim (each claim takes about three hours). Without that additional help, there is no ‘form filling’ clinic. The demonisation of the poor in terms of language used by Iain Duncan Smith, e.g “lifestyle choice” is considered by Jeremy as ‘deeply offensive, rubbish and nonsense’; poorer people, who are trying to do their best in life, should be allowed to be demonised.
The author would like Jennifer Ball, from the Law Centres Federation, who has been pivotal in inspiring him about the importance of pro bono publico.