From next week Social Benefit Lawyers will speak no more. But they matter to our society

12:39 pm - March 28th 2013

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by Nathaniel Mathews

What is a housing lawyer? Or what is a social welfare lawyer?

Answer: we are people who represent and come to court for people with very little money. We are paid for mostly by the tax-payer. Why should the tax-payer give a damn?

We are the people who work for charities like Law Centres or CAB’s. We are also those working in private firms set up on a for profit basis, staffed by underpaid and idealistic individuals, with a thirst for social justice. It is an honourable calling.

We speak for the battered wife, the cancer victim, the abused child. We speak for the tenant who has had her papers ripped up in front of her face, and who has been put onto the street because her landlord is too lazy or ignorant to take his case to court to obtain a valid eviction order.

We speak for the student who is qualifying as a teacher when her husband deserts her with 2 kids, and leaves her with rent responsibilities she can’t meet.

We speak for the soldier who has been mutilated by war, and fight the letters that would take his benefits away. We fight the veterans’ rights no matter which side they fought for, on disability grounds.

We speak for disabled adults under 35 years of age who are racked by the room rent that slashes their Housing Benefit. It is expected these “young” people will share accommodation with each other, but there are too few flats to share.

We speak for the homeless people. The family skewered by the benefit changes, the war veteran sleeping on the streets for six months, the children who live for years in cramped emergency hostels with no room to breathe

We speak.

Yet on 1st April 2013, we will speak no more.

The clumsy Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act will cut off Legal Aid and will seal our mouths with lead. Legal Aid cuts will shut our mouths, and silence the voices of the marginalised among us.

We speak for the London that matters. We do not speak for millionaires with their high falluting tax schemes and their high paid lawyers and accountants.

I speak for the living and vibrant Borough of Hackney, thus London, thus the world.

Nathaniel blogs more regularly at Frontline Hackney

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Reader comments

Well said.

I think most people haven’t realised what these legal aid cuts really mean for them and for wider society. Basically, if you have no money, many laws passed to protect you, in a whole variety of areas, may as well not exist.

It’s appalling.

To take just one example, if the government revoked all laws governing the conduct of private landlords toward their tenants, there would be an outcry. But that’s effectively what they’ve just done, unless the tenant happens to be one of the few seriously wealthy renters out there.

2. Man on Clapham Omnibus

Er dont think it was clumsy. Think it was quite deliberate to prevent battered women from recieving protection from the law. Similarly for women ,whose estranged partners run off with their children. But one does have to ask why there was no serious challenge when the bill was passing through both houses. Bet your bottom dollar,the next thing to go will be Care. Unfortunately, anything to do with solicitors has been brilliantly saddled with the notion of ‘fat cats’. Hence Legal Aid is an area ripe for further cuts untill it is no more.

It’s called power and total control.

The masses will be like slaves without a voice and no protection !

The Evil Cloud of Toryism has casts it’s self over this entire nation taking us back to the Victorian era !

I have no thoughts about the laws about which you talk.

On six occasions you say “We speak”. Six We. You do not qualify the We.

“What is a housing lawyer? Or what is a social welfare lawyer?”

Why the fuck do we need another layer between housing managers and tenants. It is difficult: everyone wants to talk to somebody who can actually do something.

The existence of your fucking job demonstrates fuckupness. You never taught people how to work with authority. You taught people to use your services whilst you sucked up to the government tit. You are as repugnant as the mirror reflection.

5. Robin Levett

@Charlieman #4:

Could we have that again, translated from venom into English?

6. Derek Hattons Tailor

Reminds me of Mr Darcy in Bridget Jones. He was a lawyer, so to avoid any suspicion he might be a parasitic wanker, he was made a human rights lawyer and therefore, somehow, one of the good guys. There is no difference between a lawyer protecting the downtrodden and one representing a millionaire (and may lawyers have themselves become millionaires on the back of the legal aid system). Both aim to profit from a rigged system which forces us to use their services.

In 1979 approximately half the UK population were entitled to legal aid. When I studied for the Bar in 1986-87 the model presented was that anyone who could not afford a lawyer would be entitled to legal aid for a great range of issues. This would enable you to instruct a solicitor who, in turn, would instruct a barrister if necessary.

Since those days legal aid has been cut down until only a small fraction of population qualifies. Thus,people seeking justice will have to represent themselves. The knock-on effect is that this slows down the entire administration of justice in the civil courts. This has not been lost on anyone in the civil justice system with any degree of knowledge or in any position of responsibility – warnings have been coming for over six months from experienced lawyers and judges. As the commonlaw provided, no-one should delay justice – justice delayed is justice denied.

District Judges are certainly dreading the rise in litigants in person because havingcases conducted by non-lawyers inevitably and needlessly increases the length of time proceedings take. All other courts users and litigants, whether corporate or individual will suffer and end up paying extra costs as a result.
Winners will, of course, be commercial lawyers. Extra costs will pile up as commercial lawyers will bill their clients accordingly for the delay and extra time taken, adjourned hearings etc, since it means that all cases will take longer to resolve. This will also spill over into the magistrates’ courts in certain planning enforcement cases – at Brent magistrates’ court two weeks ago they were having to list for August….

However, there will also be other winners – including those tenants in the private rented sector who will be unable to pay their rent on account of welfare cuts. They are likely – once their rent arrears exceed two months – to just sit put and let arrears accumulate.

The delays caused by the growth in litigants in person will result in a backlog in cases, so that persons in rent arrears will enjoy months of rent free living before they finally get evicted.

Ultimately, this short sighted approach is going to hit people who support the Coalition although whether they are intelligent enough to realise it is,of course, a matter which remains open at this stage.

@5. Robin Levett: “Could we have that again, translated from venom into English?”

As Robin implied, I should have shown more respect to welfare lawyers and to volunteers who serve the vulnerable. I apologise for my rant.

The people who use their services may just require a form to be explained or they may need a lot of hand holding. Helping people is fine; but there is an awkwardness about reliance, transformation to independence. We aren’t good at it.

The liberal community politics ethic was not about a well connected servant who could fix things. It was meant to be about changing public service to be more responsive; it was about changing the conversation between residents and officials; it was to liberate both sides.

Whilst we have a permanent layer of intermediaries between citizens and officials, we are not communicating directly. Everyone with a problem wants to talk to somebody who can fix it, and only those who know how to circumvent the system can do so. So we have to go back to community politics and somehow find a voice for everyone.

Simply to keep this story high. To apologise to Robin,

10. Robin Levett

@Charlieman ‘8&9:

Thank you.

Addresing the point; in a perfect world, my profession would have little reason to exist; likewise the police and other emergency services, the armed forces etc.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world; and an individual’s problems with their housing cannot always be resolved politically.

I don’t disagree that there is a wide variation in the help any given client may require; and I’ve volunteered as an Honorary Legal adviser at a CAB as well as working in private practice as a housing lawyer. In my experience, it generally takes a lot of provocation before tenants go to see a solicitor to resolve their problems, and once resolved they try to stay away…so your concern at the interposition of a permanent layer of intermediaries is probably ill-founded.

11. Charlieman

Err, I didn’t apologise to Nathaniel Mathews. Sorry.

@10. Robin Levett: “…in a perfect world, my profession would have little reason to exist…”

You are a smart liberal thinker; as a participant in legal services for the vulnerable, you know about the tweaks and widgets that work for you.

You say: “In my experience, it generally takes a lot of provocation before tenants go to see a solicitor to resolve their problems, and once resolved they try to stay away…”

I say as a bystander: “What, you are employing a solicitor to sort this out?”

I am not trying to be intentionally ignorant or contemptuous. But should this stuff require solicitors, three banks of them in a row simultaneously banging carriage return on Imperial typewriters, looking through a greasy pane? Isn’t it about reducing the requirement for your services? Solicitors, we employed them because everything else failed…

You say: “…it generally takes a lot of provocation before tenants go to see a solicitor to resolve their problems…”

Which implies that many of those who visit you feel that they are victims. Ouch!

But the problems remain. Why are public services so fouled up that citizens don’t/can’t use them to settle disagreements? What happens when the legal profession is treated with the disrespect shown to social services?

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