Category Archives: Legal Aid

The disability activist fighting injustice

Social policy professor Peter Beresford once described Doug Paulley, who I interviewed for today’s Guardian, as as a “caped care home crusader”.

Paulley is known for his wheelchair priority case against transport company FirstGroup, hinging on whether bus firms are required to force people with pushchairs to vacate wheelchair spaces.

His initial win was overturned on appeal and is due to be heard in the Supreme Court in June in a move that could, as campaign group Transport for All says, “set a legal precedent for enforceable priority over wheelchair space”. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) supports Paulley’s case, and his awareness-raising helped win him the Sheila McKechnie Foundation award for campaigner of the year 2015.

Paulley has won almost all the 40 disability discrimination cases he has launched over the last decade. Paulley, who lives in a care home and uses a wheelchair, is an activist, not a lawyer. He has represented himself in all but three actions, challenging equality and accessibility barriers in organisations from pub chains to supermarkets and theatre firms. He has won around £10,000 in compensation over 10 years, he estimates, by bringing complaints under the Equality Act in the small claims court.

He welcomes last weeks damning Lords select committee report on the Equality Act 2010 and disability, which chastises the government for failing disabled people in its duty of care. Paulley was invited to give evidence to the select committee and is quoted in the report.

He answers critics who claim he’s motivated by money or that he enjoys being “a bully” – in fact he often donates damages to activist groups and stresses that the compensation amounts involved are “dwarfed by legal fees” – a reference to high-earning lawyers who represent service providers (the small claims court maximum award is £10,000 but discrimination-related claims generally fall between £600 and £6,000).

The full piece on Paulley, who volunteers at a local Oxfam and has fundraised for disability charity the Calvert Trust, is here.

A huge percentage of the population without redress – that is dangerous

The government’s plan to slash £220m from the UK’s legal aid budget has rightly been condemned for its sweeping scale but, in this series of interviews I’ve done for the Guardian, the very human impact – the effect on the individual – is laid bare.

Under the proposals, victims of miscarriages of justice like Gerry Conlon, one of the Guilford Four, or Mark Neary, who fought his local council’s decision to send his son into care 300 miles away from home, would never have brought their cases before the courts.

Legal aid has helped to right countless wrongs since its inception as part of the post-war welfare state but the plans for change render it unrecognisable and inaccessible.

Legal aid, and the individual’s right to challenge authority and unfair decisions is a bedrock of the British legal system, often described as “the envy of the world“. Dismantle that foundation, and, as the people and families I spoke to for today’s piece make clear, you increase the likelihood of wrongful convictions and greater unrest among the prison population, and you give the authorities carte blanche to bring in sweeping changes (to welfare, for example) with impunity.

The government’s Transforming Legal Aid proposals include new competitive tendering of solicitors’ contracts and a fixed fee system which, say lawyers, will preclude many from bidding for work and force them out of the market. The government will also prevent prisoners from using legal aid to challenge their treatment inside (see the words of ex-offender Leroy Skeete in the Guardian piece to see what effect this could have) and a new residency test will withhold legal aid from trafficking victims or those recently arrived in the UK who suffer domestic abuse.

Justice secretary Chris Grayling is due to give evidence this morning to the justice select committee regarding the price competitive tendering proposals in his Transforming Legal Aid consultation.

As reported, Grayling has said in a statement: “I have always been clear this is a genuine consultation and I will continue to listen to views.” (He may listen – but will he act on what he hears?) He may be dropping his plans to remove defendants’ rights to choose their own solicitor but, while the safeguarding of choice is welcome, that choice is useless if the pool from which to chose dries up. In addition, if the system is so restricted under the changes that would-be claimants don’t get permission to launch appeal cases anyway, they won’t even get as far as having to make a choice.

Below are two more testimonies which explain just what a difference legal aid makes – and what would happen if the changes go through:

Blessing (not her real name), 36, a domestic worker from Nigeria:
“My employers hadn’t paid me properly, or paid any tax, for the nine months I worked for them. I was paid £250 a month and worked seven days a week. I never had rest days or fixed hours. They called me to work at any time. I normally started working at 7am and would work until after 11pm as my employers would return home late and expect me to cook for them.

During the day I looked after their children and cooked and cleaned. At the weekends I also had to clean my employers’ business. It was hard work and I had no life of my own.

Legal aid helped me to go to court for an employment tribunal and win. I won my claim to be paid the national minimum wage for my work.

Without legal aid I wouldn’t have got anything. I didn’t know how to help myself. I didn’t know about my rights in the UK until I went to Kalayaan, which advises migrant domestic workers. They explained my rights to me and were able to find me a lawyer to take my case.

My case shows that domestic work is real work and that work in a private household should have proper hours and be fairly paid – like any work.

The proposed residency test under the legal aid changes will stop people like me from getting help [the proposals mean applicants need to be lawfully resident in the UK and to have lived here continuously for at least a year at some stage]. This is on top of new immigration rules that mean domestic workers are given a tied migrant domestic worker visa, the rules of which also makes getting help impossible [the visa means migrant domestic staff in private households cannot change employer or stay longer than six months].

Employers will be able to treat these workers however they like as they will know that they won’t be able to challenge any mistreatment. Many are not paid at all for many months work in the UK. With no legal aid they won’t be able to do anything about this.”

Tracey Lazard of deaf and disabled people's organisation Inclusion
Tracey Lazard of deaf and disabled people’s organisation Inclusion

Tracey Lazard, chief executive Inclusion London, a pan-London Deaf and disabled peoples organisation:

“Disabled people need access to justice now more than ever.

Entitlements to independent living and social care are being dismantled and reduced and the right to challenge is through judicial review – and that, to all intents and purposes, is going to be removed [the reforms make it harder to bring a judicial review].

Increasingly, local authorities are – in order to make budgets work – squeezing individual care packages…it’s only when a disabled person’s legal aid lawyer threatens the local authority with action, do we see them carrying out statutory duties.

It’s less likely that public bodies will be held to account [under the reforms] and in this climate of frenzied cuts, that’s more important than ever. Judicial review is a key challenge to ensure that public bodies meet their duties under the Equalities Act and due regard is paid to vulnerable groups.

Without legal aid funded judicial reviews, the recent work capability assessment and bedroom tax policies wouldn’t have been challenged.

We’ll have a huge percentage of the population without redress, and that is a dangerous system to be in.”

*Previous posts on legal aid can be found here and here

Why we must protect the shrinking legal aid safety net

Nadia Salam, solicitor, Release
Sarah can tell you how quickly things fall apart. She has learning difficulties and mental health problems. She received benefits until a Department for Work and Pensions medical examiner assessed her as fit for work, without taking into account her mental health problems. Her benefits stopped as a result. She had difficulty understanding her letters and avoided opening post so she wasn’t aware of her rent arrears or that she was falling into debt.

When Sarah was threatened with eviction she decided to see a lawyer. By looking at the paperwork and making enquires on Sarah’s behalf the lawyer realised why Sarah had fallen into debt and that her home was at risk. She got advice in three areas so her benefits started again and affordable payments were negotiated on her behalf so her landlord agreed to take no further action.

Yet fast forward to 2013 and, under government plans due to come into force in just over a year’s time, Sarah will not get the same help. She will not even see a lawyer face to face, and will have to call an 0845 number just to get advice. The lawyer will not be able to carry out any preventative work or help with all the problems. Sarah probably will not even be able to afford the cost of the 0845 call. She won’t be able to turn up in person with all the paperwork, like she did before.

The government is putting a bill through parliament that would change the system for legal aid – when the state pays all or part of the legal costs for those who cannot afford them – so advice in certain areas of law would only initially be accessible through a mandatory telephone line. The current proposed areas are community care, debt, discrimination and special educational needs. All of these areas are complex, and often people who need this advice will be distressed, vulnerable and have difficulty understanding their paperwork or explaining their complex situation over the telephone.

There is currently a direct telephone advice line – however people still have the choice to access face to face advice. Under the proposals, this will no longer be the case. You won’t be able to choose the solicitor or visit them in person for initial advice in certain areas of law. This will all be done over the telephone, where someone who may not even be legally trained will decide whether you need legal advice and are eligible.

The reforms come just as councils are also cutting the services they provide. Vulnerable adults will be most at risk as it will be harder to get legal advice to challenge standards of community care or an assessment that they do not qualify.

On 21st November 2011 the Bill was debated in the House of Lords for almost eight hours. It is about to pass onto the committee stage, where peers will examine it line by line. There have been serious concerns from peers about a mandatory telephone line. Baroness Grey-Thompson highlighted this during the recent debate: “The cases of disabled people are complex… If a disabled person has struggled to put their case forward in an assessment process, a phone call will not make it easier”.

This is only one of the major changes being proposed. Other proposals would remove many areas of law from the scope of legal aid, so it will no longer be available for many parts of family and immigration law, and no problems dealing with employment, clinical negligence, or welfare benefits.

All of these proposals if introduced will affect many vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in our society, particularly the disabled. The government’s own figures reveal that 58% of people who lose legal aid for benefits issues will be ill or disabled. However despite this, the government is still adamant that the bill should go ahead as initially drafted.

The disability charity Scope points out that the Government has not recognised that legal aid is an essential element for the success of wider welfare reforms, helping people get the right decisions to access support they need to help them into work. With the Government completely overhauling the entire benefits system even more people will find themselves struggling like Sarah. More people will need advice, and it is more likely that errors will be made as DWP staff get to grips with the new rules. However unlike Sarah they will not be able to get the legal advice they so desperately need to prevent themselves from fighting fire.

It is important that we continue to support the campaign for free legal advice to ensure we will always have the law to protect those that need it the most and have access to justice. Go to Save Legal Aid, Justice for All and Sound off for Justice (previously featured in this post on the Social Issue) for ways you can get involved.

* Scope is collecting stories from disabled people who used legal aid to get the right benefits, contact cristina.sarb@scope.org.uk