Why increased Legal Aid alone will not put an end to the misery caused by the current system of disability benefits.
As part of our ‘Towards a Fairer Legal System’ blog series, we asked Raji Hunjan, Chief Executive of Z2K (Zacchaeus 2000 Trust) to share her thoughts on how to make the legal system fairer.
Z2K is both a campaigning and a casework charity, working for a welfare benefits system that is easy to navigate and provides a safety net for those who need it. Z2K help hundreds of people to secure the benefits they are entitled to and use this to challenge the policies that affect them.
Raji Hunjan, CEO, Z2K (Zacchaeus 2000 Trust)
I first joined Z2K in 2017 and my first introduction to casework was Anthony*; he had been identified by his rent officer because of his rent arrears and approached our services for support at one of our outreach sessions. Anthony’s language skills were limited, but he had with him a note from his GP, appealing for help because he was close to starvation and had no access to money. His benefits had been stopped because at reassessment he was found fit for work, and yet he had no idea how to secure an income. He had attempted to seek help at the job centre, but had difficulty communicating and so was asked to leave. In his words, he felt he was laughed at by the Job Centre staff. By the time we met him, he had gone weeks with no money at all. With our limited resources, we did everything we could to help Anthony – from accompanying him to his next Work Capability Assessment, taking him back to the job centre and demanding Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) pending appeal, through to negotiating with his rent officer. Anthony’s case was a moment for us, in fully understanding the value of making people feel like they matter and that they deserved and were entitled to help.
The benefits system is complicated, and evidence from our casework suggests that people secure better outcomes if they have help from advice workers – from completing various forms and applications, to support with attending assessments, through to help with challenging negative benefits decisions. This can be a really disempowering experience for people who are used to managing without help: as one client told us, “Before my appeal I spent nine months really struggling and feeling very anxious”.
People’s ability to go through the benefits system without help is often exacerbated by their illness or disability. As one person told us recently: “My confidence levels vary; if I am in a depressive state, my confidence goes down”. Even those who do feel they can navigate the benefits system will say they have valued professional help. One client stressed how important this is; “Every appointment my caseworker explained what the law says about benefits”. This suggests there is a problem; any system that relies so much on advocacy cannot have been designed with the actual needs of people in mind.
Over the last ten years, people’s suffering under the disability benefits system is effectively a double whammy. While welfare reform has made it harder for people to access disability benefits, the end of legal aid for social security tribunals has make it near impossible to challenge the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) appalling decision making.
In our services, by 2016 we were seeing a greater demand for benefits appeals and, like other advice services, we started to take on tribunal work, initially unfunded, because that was the right thing to do. People who were accessing our service were so often frightened and confused as to why they were in this situation, we were compelled to step in. Now we take at least 400 cases to tribunal each year. Our success rate in 2019 is already around 90%, and we have so far recouped £2m in financial benefits for our clients. We have achieved this through collaboration with corporate law firms and the use of pro bono lawyers.
Based on learning from our work at Z2K, I would argue that a fairer justice system should not just include funding for legal aid, but also quick and easy access to a well-resourced compassionate advice service, one where people feel listened to and are supported holistically with a range of challenges, including debt and housing problems. It’s not just about winning the benefits people are entitled to, it’s also about empowering people, reminding them that they matter.
“It allowed me to focus on my health issues rather than having to ignore them due to all the stress involved with trying to resolve the problem with housing and benefits” (Z2K client )
The government has announced an end to austerity, and so we are waiting to hear what this means for legal aid. Labour, in opposition, has pledged £20m to restore legal aid and, given all we have experienced at Z2K, I certainly welcome this, but with some note of caution. I fully believe in the role of the legal justice system in helping people to exercise their rights. A successful legal challenge is in no doubt a catalyst for wider systemic change, but the outcomes for the individual must also be transformative. It is not just about winning the case, but a restoration of dignity and a sense of self belief. When it comes to social security tribunals, winning an appeal on behalf of the client fixes only part of the problem. What remains is how the process has taken its toll on people’s self-esteem, their mental health, and their ability to manage their money. Often the process has led to other serious problems – family break up, threat of homelessness, reliance on food banks.
I was previously the Director of North Kensington Law Centre, and I saw first-hand the impact of legal aid cuts on people’s ability to fight back against evictions, disrepair, immigration problems amongst other things. But what I don’t want is to see is a scaling up of the current legal aid system which is a contractual arrangement between government and providers, full of red-tape, complicated billing systems, constant threat of recoups, all resulting in significant cash flow problems for smaller charities with little reserves. I want to be part of a conversation that redesigns a legal aid with dignity and compassion alongside people’s rights, at its heart. One that offers additional wrap around support, taking the time to listen to what is really of concern to people who present with a legal problem.
Legal advice alone cannot address all of this; we need a more holistic approach, where people are at the centre and are empowered by the process of seeking justice. We will know we have got the process right when all clients feel they’ve had the service they need, and give feedback like we’ve had from a recent client: “Your whole project is just wonderful. Your staff are warm and concerning. The kindness, the concern. Wow keep it up”.
To find out more about the work of Z2K and see how they are empowering people to seek justice, go to: https://www.z2k.org/our-impact/
* To protect the identity of our clients, a false name has been used.