The Harrow Law Centre

When I joined Lord Bach’s Access to Justice Commission, I told my fellow Commissioners that I was keen that we should receive vivid up to date evidence from front-line agencies about the effect of the legal aid cuts and court fee increases.

This evidence is now pouring in.  In this blog I cite the evidence of Harrow Law Centre, whose patron I became six months ago.  More recently I spent a fund-raising evening with them in a pub in Islington, and they have often posted on Twitter the victories they have achieved for clients who would otherwise have been bereft of help.  These recent “posts” gives a flavour of their work:

“Young boy excluded from school left without any education since November now back in school thanks to our education solicitor.

With more resources we could represent so many more people in their benefits appeals so they don’t have to turn to food banks to eat.

Friday afternoon & we have just taken a call from tenant unlawfully evicted – Landlord changed the locks. Injunction being sought.

Just had call from young homeless woman with mental illness sleeping in car, told us she intends to kill herself.  Second case in 2 weeks.

Our client (mentally/physically ill) left destitute when DWP removed his ESA [Employment & Support Allowance].  We represented at tribunal and got it back for him.

We are sorry but we are unable to take new homeless, Care Act or benefits cases for next 2 weeks as completely overloaded with existing cases.”

In their evidence (which I reproduce below)  they write vividly about a number of matters with which we have become increasingly familiar:

  1. The practice of “pass the parcel” between cash-starved non-specialist agencies who cannot provide any useful help themselves but do not know who may be able to provide the assistance the client needs;
  2. The scale of the bureaucratic obstacle course that confronts anyone seeking legal aid in one of those comparatively few fields of law which remain “in scope”;

They say:

“The system has become vastly more bureaucratic under the Legal Aid Agency.  Simply opening a legal help or legal aid case is hugely complex and requires a vast amount of information for each case.  This is one of the reasons for the reduction in providers of legal aid because it is simply not viable for firms to do so.  The latest system of online claims means a solicitor will spend on average 4 hours completing a form[1].”

3.  The “cost” of the legal aid cuts, both in monetary and in human terms.

Of the financial cost they say:

“The family who is evicted for rent arrears because they have not been able to get their benefits sorted becomes the responsibility of the Local Authority.  The cost to the Council of homeless families in Harrow is soaring and many families are having to move away from their support network because the Council no longer has the properties to accommodate the families locally.  There is also the financial cost of families without benefits and housing having to rely on support from social services or even children being taken into care.”

And of the human cost:

“We now regularly see vulnerable people who have been left without any food or heating.  This is often because they have had a benefit sanction or their mental illness meant they could not cope with the very harsh systems introduced for employment support allowance.

We also see vulnerable people who have been evicted unlawfully or have lost their home because they could not sort out their benefits.

In the last few weeks we have had 4 families sleeping in cars due to homelessness and several sleeping in the bus station or park.

We have had several cases of people saying they have had enough and are going to kill themselves.

We see children with special needs pushed out of the schools considered to be the best in the borough and we see some left without education at all for many months.”

Their clients often say that their intervention has been life changing for them.  Two of the Centre’s recent cases illustrate what they mean:

“A woman who had developed a mental illness was street homeless because she had not kept up her mortgage payments.  She was brought to Harrow Law Centre by a community worker.  When the Local Authority refused our request to house her we began judicial review proceedings.  This led to her being placed in temporary accommodation.   We then made an application to the Court for the possession order to be overturned on the basis our client had been unrepresented in those proceedings and did not have the mental capacity to participate meaningfully in those proceedings.  The Court agreed and overturned the order.  She was able to return to her home.

A Romanian man who had worked in the UK in excess of six years was presented with a medical bill when his wife gave birth.  The hospital trust had wrongly decided that in the absence of an EU residence card our client did not have residence and consequently must pay the Trust nearly £3,000.  Our client had tried to resolve the matter himself but could not and now had the threat of bailiffs.  The Law Centre was able to take up the case and a threat of judicial review ensured that the matter reached the Trust’s legal department.  The Trust agreed that our client should have been treated as a British Citizen and been provided with treatment free of charge.”

One of the challenges facing the Bach Commission is to frame achievable policies which may ensure that people like these can readily access the help they need at the time they need it, and that secure and adequate funding is available for the agencies that exist to help them.

If any reader of this blog would like to help, then sponsorship for the Harrow Law Centre’s team in the London Legal Walk on 16th May is a very worthy cause.  You can donate here.

Needless to say, there are other excellent law centres up and down the country who are engaged in similar life-saving work for little reward other than the satisfaction of achieving justice for their clients.  But there are all too few of them left now.

 

Harrow Law Centre’s evidence to the Bach Commission

Harrow Law Centre is a charity which provides free legal advice, support and representation to the local community. The Law Centre was established in April 2010 by local people who saw the need for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in Harrow to have access to high quality and free legal advice. Harrow Law Centre started with just a single part time solicitor but has grown to meet demand and now employs a team of ten including 7 solicitors and one para legal.  The Law Centre provides free legal advice in most areas of social welfare including; welfare benefits, homelessness; asylum; human rights; European law; community care; education; children’s rights and public law matters. We regularly represent our clients in Courts and Tribunals and our work gives us direct experience both of the impact of legislative changes on local people and of the difficulties the most vulnerable have in access to justice.

Harrow Law Centre holds 5 legal aid contracts in community care, housing, immigration, public law and welfare benefits. The Law Centre also receives funding from a number of trust making bodies. Without these grants the Law Centre would be unable to continue as it is no longer possible to provide a service by relying on Legal Aid alone.

The three key areas of concern to us are

The scale of unmet need

The cost of restricting legal advice

More onerous process of securing legal aid

The scale of unmet need

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) introduced savage cuts to the Legal Aid system. The aim was to save some £350 million mainly in the areas of family, immigration, welfare benefits and employment.  LASPO followed several years of cuts to the Legal Aid Budget and in particular the introduction of the fixed fee system.  As a result of the cuts to the Legal Aid scheme there are now far fewer private practice solicitors providing legal advice in social welfare law.  In addition, many generalist advice agencies have moved towards sign posting and encouraging people towards self-help rather than in depth casework and representation.  The reduction in provision of quality advice comes at the same time as massive increases in Court and Tribunal fees.  The consequence is that we now have huge inequality in terms of who can access justice.

The lack of legal aid and the move towards signposting often means that by the time the Law Centre sees a client they have often been signposted from one agency to another without anyone managing to sort out the problem. The issue has often escalated to the point where they are facing homelessness or children at risk of being taken into care. There is a desperate need for early intervention and good quality casework advice rather than just signposting. Even the most articulate and determined clients can be defeated by the sheer complexity of the issue they are trying to resolve. By way of example we highlight the current provision of legal aid for welfare benefits.

Harrow Law Centre holds the legal aid contract with the Legal Aid Agency for Welfare Benefits Upper Tribunal cases for the South East. In order to qualify for public funding, the appellant must not only meet the very strict merits test but must also have navigated a hugely complex process.  Legal help is only available at the very end of the process when a person has been refused permission to appeal.

A person who has lost an appeal at a first tier tribunal must request a statement of reasons, then apply to the First Tier Tribunal for permission to appeal to the Upper Tribunal within the prescribed time limit. In the permission application the appellant must identify the relevant error of law made by the Tribunal.  We regularly see refusals of permission by First Tier Tribunal Judges stating that the appellant has simply failed to identify an error of law instead merely re stating their appeal.  It is hardly surprising that someone not legally qualified would struggle to know what an error of law is let alone be able to articulate it within a permission application. 

Only once permission to appeal is refused or granted by the First Tier Tribunal Judge might the appellant, subject to meeting the means test, become eligible for legal help. The appellant must be able to find one of the very few welfare benefits contract holders for legal aid. They must provide a significant amount of documents to show that they satisfy the means test and within a month make an application to the Upper Tribunal for permission to appeal. 

If the Upper Tribunal refuse permission to appeal the person may challenge the decision by judicial review, but these so called “Cart” judicial reviews must be lodged within 16 days. Obtaining legal aid in such a time frame is particularly difficult and unsurprisingly there has been very few such challenges.

Harrow Law Centre receives calls from people all over the UK looking for support with their appeals. They call us because they are unable to get advice in their local areas.  However, a significant number of the callers are wrongly directed to us from the Government help line Civil Legal Advice (CLA).  We have raised repeatedly with the Legal Aid Agency and Ministry of Justice the problems but it continues.

The costs of restricting Legal Advice

The legal aid budget has been significantly cut in recent years and court and tribunal fees have risen. Court procedures are often prohibitively complex and legal costs for individuals and organisations have risen to the point of being unaffordable for even those of moderate means. The impact on access to justice has been significant. While savings to the legal aid budget have been made, the wider impacts are not being measured and the Government has been criticised for its lack of understanding of the knock-on costs and value for money of its reforms.  There is both a monetary and human cost to these cuts.  The family who is evicted for rent arrears because they have not been able to get their benefits sorted becomes the responsibility of the Local Authority.  The cost to the Council of homeless families in Harrow is soaring and many families are having to move away from their support network because the Council no longer has the properties to accommodate the families locally.  There is also the financial cost of families without benefits and housing having to rely on support from social services or even children being taken into care.  

There is also a human cost to these cuts. We now regularly see vulnerable people who have been left without any food or heating.  This is often because they have had a benefit sanction or their mental illness meant they could not cope with the very harsh systems introduced for employment support allowance.  We also see vulnerable people who have been evicted unlawfully or have lost their home because they could not sort out their benefits.  In the last few weeks we have had 4 families sleeping in cars due to homelessness and several sleeping in the bus station or park.  We have had several cases of people saying they have had enough and are going to kill themselves.  We see children with special needs pushed out of the schools considered to be the best in the borough and we see some left without education at all for many months.

Our clients often say that our intervention has been life changing for them. For example, in one case a woman who had developed a mental illness was street homeless because she had not kept up her mortgage payments.  The woman was brought to Harrow Law Centre by a community worker.  When the Local Authority refused our request to house the woman we began judicial review proceedings.  This led to the woman being placed in temporary accommodation.   We then made an application to the Court for the possession order to be overturned on the basis our client has been unrepresented in those proceedings and did not have the mental capacity to participate meaningfully in those proceedings.  The Court agreed and overturned the order.  The woman was able to return to her home.

In another case a Romanian man who had worked in the UK in excess of 6 years was presented with a medical bill when his wife gave birth. The hospital trust had wrongly decided that the absence of an EU residence card our client did not have residence and consequently must pay the Trust nearly £3000.  Our client had tried to resolve the matter himself but could not and now had the threat of bailiffs.  The Law Centre was able to take up the case and a threat of judicial review ensured that the matter reached the Trust’s legal department.  The Trust agreed that our client should have been treated as a British Citizen and been provided with treatment free of charge.

Harrow Law Centre is a small charity and there must be many people who face similar injustice but cannot resolve the matter favourably because they cannot access specialist advice.

More onerous process of securing legal aid 

The system has become vastly more bureaucratic under the Legal Aid Agency. Simply opening a legal help or legal aid case is hugely complex and requires a vast amount of information for each case.  This is one of the reasons for the reduction in providers of legal aid because it is simply not viable for firms to do so.  The latest system of online claims means a solicitor will spend on average 4 hours completing a form.  When we receive payment the sum paid rarely matches the amount billed and the LAA does not itemise VAT on legal help statements making it extremely time consuming to work out the VAT within the sum paid.

It is our view that we no longer have an adequate system to protect vulnerable people from harm. We live in a wealthy city yet we see on a daily basis people left without food, heating and shelter.  Those in desperate need are unable to access services or support and agencies like Law Centres are picking up the pieces.  We welcome this inquiry and would be happy to give further evidence if required.

 

[1] For which, incidentally, he/she will receive no payment.

One thought on “The Harrow Law Centre

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