“The right to justice is as important as a right to health or education.
For many, law centres provide the only means for free,
high-quality legal advice and representation.
Quite simply, no representation means no access to justice.”
Welcome to the home page of the Greater Manchester Law Centre. Here, you’ll find out about our free legal services, our campaigns to secure access to justice, and the many different ways you can get involved. Fundamentally, this is a law centre by the community and for the community – so we do need your help!
We depend on your generosity. Supporting us financially can not be easier. Go to our Donation page or just click the button below. Please note, you don’t need necessarily a PayPal account, just your debit/credit card.
By Paul Cosier, Katrina Beitina and Marcia Hutchinson.
“Paul Cosier, Katrina Beitina and Marcia Hutchinson are volunteers at the Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC). This article collates widely-felt concerns as reported elsewhere about the Personal Independence Payment claim process, including some of the concerning case-studies regarding people with disabilities or chronic ailments and the difficulties they face in maintaining a claim.
GMLC challenges welfare policy where injustices occur, by drawing on their own casework experience and promoting the stories of those let down by the welfare system. At their recent AGM they announced plans for strategic litigation, where they will bring a legal challenge against welfare policy itself. This article is therefore part of the foundations for legal campaigning.
Paul also conducted a study of the ESA claim process for GMLC, which you can find here”.
Personal Independence Payments (PIP) are designed to help with the extra costs of a long-term health condition or disability. In March 2017, the Government made amendments to the PIP assessment criteria. The PIP assessment is points-based, which means you score points depending on how you perform different activities. There are 10 activities relating to your daily living needs and two activities relating to your mobility. The changes slightly restrict how a claimant can get points for one of the ten daily living activities, and one of the two mobility activities . The chief executives of more than 30 charities wrote to ministers urging them not to restrict access to a disability benefit in fear that people will be left without vital financial support .
The Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) co-chairman Phil Reynolds said: "Across the DBC we have had our helpline and advice services inundated by calls about PIP since it was introduced. Instead of supporting disabled people, the benefits system seems increasingly rigged against them. The whole system needs urgent improvement, in order to accurately assess the support they need. Disabled people cannot afford to wait."
People who claim the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) have to undergo a medical assessment, with the exception of those with a terminal disease . The purpose of this assessment is not to diagnose the claimant, but to establish how their life is affected by their condition . The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have set rules and guidelines on how such assessments ought to be carried out .
Two private companies, Atos and Capita, have secured contracts worth around £500 million to carry out the PIP medical assessments. These companies claim that they adhere to the assessment rules as set by the DWP who are the decision maker. Nonetheless, some claimants have reported being ‘informally observed’. This means that they are watched and their behaviour is monitored before the medical assessment has even begun, and this can be used against them. Other claimants have reported problems with the 20 metre mobility test and the unreliability of the assessment as a whole . These are just a couple of the biggest let-downs with the PIP medical assessment, which is supposed to pave the way to independence.
One of the claimants who was informally observed was Alastair Wardhaugh who underwent his medical assessment at an Atos centre. Mr Wardhaugh was born with congenital hydrocephalus and a form of spina bifida. He suffered paralysis on his left side following an injection at age 4, which left him struggling to walk. He walks about his house using a zimmer frame for support and can manage about 20 metres with a crutch, but is unsteady.
Mr Wardaugh was informally observed walking out of the centre and getting into his car - this was three months after he was released from hospital having fractured his right leg in four places after becoming unsteady and falling down stairs. Shockingly, he was ordered to surrender his mobility car as a result of the assessment.
Mr Wardhaugh said:
“I have survived hydrocephalus and 40 operations, but this is the worst. I will be robbed of my independence. Anybody to look at me would think I was Quasimodo’s stunt double and need my car to get anywhere, so I was absolutely devastated to learn they had exaggerated my walking capabilities.”
He said he has launched an appeal against the decision, but that could take up to a year to conclude, and in the meantime, he would be housebound .
An anonymous employee at an Atos call centre in the north of England has called for the Government to urgently review the broken system. The whistleblower revealed:
“You go into the office in the morning and the switchboard is absolutely rammed. Everyone is complaining about their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment and it is the same three stories that I hear over and over again. People are saying they feel the assessor pressurised them to say something that they wouldn’t normally, they feel the assessor tricked them, or they believe the assessor outright put something on the form that they didn’t say. I am not talking about a call here and there, I’m talking about a flood of complaints all day long, all saying the same things. All these people can’t be lying, there are hundreds of them. They make up the vast majority of the calls we receive ".
The Greater Manchester Law Centre exists to help people who are disabled or who have chronic ailments and are being moved from DLA (Disability Living Allowance) to PIP and are having their awards diluted or removed completely. Our caseworkers and solicitors can assist in completing the original questionnaires, escort claimants to their medical assessments, help with an appeal and represent the claimant at tribunal.
Please help us continue this vital work by becoming a member (www.gmlaw.org.uk) and make a small contribution each month.
- Tickets are selling out: "Law and Disorder" Quiz 7th December
- "I couldn't have got this result without such a good team helping me"
- Debbie Abrahams MP meets us at our premises
- Our submission to the disability benefits inquiry
- Snapshot #3 from our Annual Report
Tickets are selling out: "Law and Disorder" Quiz 7th December
On the theme of "Law & Disorder", we will be hosting a Christmas Quiz on the evening of Thursday 7th December at TROF in the Northern Quarter.
Capacity is limited so make sure you book via eventbrite. All proceeds will go towards supporting our vital services and campaigns. You can pay on the door on the night. We are asking for £10 per ticket and additional donations are welcome.
Everyone is welcome, please invite your friends.
See you there!
"I couldn't have got this result without such a good team helping me"
Our caseworker Anne helped him to appeal, and we successfully reversed the decision. At the tribunal, David was awarded 9 points for his PIP application. This is a very high score, meaning that the severity of his condition was apparent and he needed assistance with his daily living needs. He was given a 3 year award.
"Just a quick message to say thanks again to you and all at GMLC for all the help and the work you put in to get this result. I'm still getting my head round it! Also to Anne who convinced me from day one that I had a case and I could win it. I couldn't have got this result without such a good team helping me. Thanks again" - David, GMLC Client
In our first year, we helped clients to win back over £400,000 in benefits that they should not have been denied in the first place. Read more about our record here.
Debbie Abrahams MP meets us at our premises
It was a pleasure to welcome Debbie Abrahams MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to our premises earlier this months. We discussed our refusal to be complicit in the Universal Credit roll-out, our clients' experiences with ESA and PIP, the impending government review of Legal Aid reforms, and supporting our services across the whole of Greater Manchester. We are pleased to have her support.
We discussed the importance of legal services reaching out into different areas of Greater Manchester, and Debbie was particularly helpful in suggesting ways that we can meet the legal advice needs in Oldham. She also shared our desire to make an impact on the national debate.
After the publication of the Bach Report on Access to Justice, legal aid is in the political limelight at a national level, and we are working hard with our supporters to fight for free, high quality, face-to-face legal advice and representation.
Our submission to the disability benefits inquiry
We help our clients to navigate an unfair and convoluted benefits system. We use this experience and work with out clients to challenge and change the system so that people are not denied justice in the first place.
In November, we compiled case studies, interviews with caseworkers and client testimonies to make a submission to the governmental inquiry into disability benefits. We exposed the flaws as we see them and proposed viable solutions.
This inquiry is already causing a stir. As reported in the Guardian:
"A House of Commons inquiry into disability benefits has heard from more than 3,000 people in despair at the system, including dozens who say they have been driven to suicidal thoughts by the process.
Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions committee, said it would be usual to receive about 100 responses, but the inquiry had been deluged by people sharing stories about being denied disability benefits or battles to keep their entitlements."
We will be following up with submission with further campaigning activity, so keep an eye on our bulletins, social media channels and website for updates and further information on how you can support us.
Snapshot #3 from our Annual Report
This is the third in a series of snapshots from our Annual Report, which was presented at our AGM 28th September 2017.
In this section on Campaigning and Fundraising, we describe why and how we campaign for free access to justice.
"Why do we campaign?
From the beginning, we have been more than a Law Centre. We are a campaign for access to justice. We demand free legal advice and representation for all who need it, and we challenge unjust legislation and policy. In practice, this means ensuring our elected representatives keep Legal Aid on the political agenda. It means calling on the rest of the legal sector to support us in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. It means building a sustainable volunteer base, because we are run by and for our community. It means producing hard-hitting commentary on topical issues. It means working with similar organisations to maximise our shared impact. It means creating innovative ways of funding our survival. We are fighting, together, for free access to justice, and this requires a multitude of tactics."
Click here to read on.
This piece was written by one of our volunteer caseworkers, Sarah Wait. It was originally published on her blog here.
You can read more about our casework here.
Last week again saw me appearing before the Social Security and Child Support First Tier Tribunal representing a client who had been found fit for work by the Department for Work and Pensions, and was appealing their decision.
The case, for me, was a perfect example of the frequent illogical and ill-founded decisions of the DWP in respect of welfare benefits and therefore a timely opportunity to further highlight the issues faced by people like my client.
Charles, last week’s client, has very kindly granted me permission to write about his case. For this, I am grateful.
(NB This post does not explain ESA/Work Capability Assessments in any detail, for this please see my previous blog on that subject Work Capability Assessments: ‘Fit’ for Purpose?)
I started work on Charles’ case in August of this year when his previous representative moved to pastures new. On reading his file, it quickly became apparent that he was in a similar position to so many of my clients, despite reporting significant difficulties with his mental health, he had scored zero points at the Work Capability Assessment and found fit for work.
Having exhausted the DWP’s review process, to no avail, Charles had lodged an appeal with the Tribunals Service in June of this year. This would put his case before an independent tribunal chaired by a judge and assisted by a Doctor. He came to Greater Manchester Law Centre seeking assistance with his appeal and representation at his tribunal hearing.
Receiving the DWP’s appeal papers was eye opening. Alarm bells immediately sounded in my mind when I discovered that the ‘Health Care Professional’ who had assessed Charles’ capability for work was a physiotherapist, despite the fact that he was adamant in his application for ESA that the problems preventing him from being able to work were mental health problems, and despite the fact that an earlier decision of the Upper Tribunal expressed grave concerns about the very same issue, holding that the physiotherapist’s views in such cases are ‘of no probative value whatsoever’.
On meeting Charles for the first time, he explained to me exactly what he had explained in his application form, and had tried to explain in his assessment. He faced significant difficulties with almost all aspects of day to day activities because of his mental state. He could neither feed nor clothe himself reliably, and needed prompting to complete any sort of personal hygiene routine. He was unable to go to crowded places, and found unexpected and last minute change impossible to deal with. This was just the tip of the iceberg. Almost all of the things that I did without thinking in my own daily routine Charles could either not do, or needed significant prompting or assistance to do them. Coming to meet me at the Law Centre was an ordeal. Life, essentially, was extremely difficult to manage.
When we spoke about what had happened at the Work Capability Assessment, Charles reported that the assessor spent the vast majority of the assessment time asking about physical health problems when it was clear in his application for ESA and at the outset of the assessment that physically, he was capable of working. He told me that the assessor had actively stopped him from describing the difficulties he faced on a daily basis.
The DWP’s decision maker, in addition to the report of the Work Capability Assessment, had been provided by medical evidence from Charles’ General Practitioner, whom he sees on at least one occasion per month. This evidence supported Charles’ explanation of his difficulties in his application and that he suffered from severe anxiety and depression, for which he was taking the maximum dose of appropriate medication. He was trying to secure a course of psychotherapy only to be told that his depression and anxiety was too severe. Unfortunately, through no fault of his own, Charles had been passed from pillar to post. Still, he was awarded zero points and found fit for work. His ESA entitlement ceased from March this year.
Fast forward to November this year.
Eight long, benefit deprived months later, the day of the tribunal arrived. After a relatively short hearing, punctuated by a robust yet professional legal argument on the interpretation of the Upper Tribunal’s decision regarding the use of physiotherapists in assessing mental health problems, Charles was found to be neither fit for work nor work related activity.
The tribunal found that not only did he satisfy a number of the descriptors which rendered him unfit for work related activity, but that finding him fit for work related activity would pose a serious risk to his health.
Needless to say, Charles was relieved that his ordeal was over, and that he could focus on trying to improve his mental health.
I was irritated. Irritated that eight months and very little additional evidence later, a tribunal had decided in no uncertain terms what the DWP ought to have decided eight months earlier. Undoubtedly the process had adversely affected Charles’ mental health, having caused him unnecessary distress and anguish over a prolonged period.
Of his experience of working with Greater Manchester Law Centre Charles said:
“I was lucky enough to have the support of Sarah and the team at Greater Manchester Law Centre without whom I would have given up long ago. Even in Manchester these resources are hard to come by with many people falling through the net and ending up on the streets or worse, so please help in whatever way you can.”
The Greater Manchester Law Centre is a charity which helps people like Charles week in week out, which depends on the generosity of the Greater Manchester community and beyond.
Supporting the Law Centre with your time or money couldn’t be easier. If access to justice is important to you, please click on the link above and consider supporting GMLC.
By GMLC volunteer caseworker, Sarah Wait.