By Brocho Nemetsky
Brocho is a volunteer at the GMLC. She is interested in learning about our rights, and helping others to do the same. She works as a paralegal at Brian Barr Solicitors, and hopes to work as a Barrister.
On 5 November 2018, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the United Kingdom. The purpose of his visit, which lasted until 16 November, was to gather information and prepare a report for the United Nations General Assembly on extreme poverty here and its interaction with the human rights of citizens.
The report examines the effects of government cuts and austerity measures across various demographics, and how different government programmes have also been affected. This includes the large-scale closing of libraries and recreation centres, cutting of local authorities’ budgets and drop in teachers’ salaries. Of course, two large areas that have been hit by these reforms are legal aid and benefits.
Access to justice has been under a sustained attack which escalated with introduction of LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act). LASPO was not the start of the political assault on access to justice, but it certainly escalated it. Law centres and advice bureaus are presumed to have to fill the gaps created by the government’s cuts to our legal aid system. LASPO saw eligibility criteria made significantly harder to meet, and many housing, family and benefits cases ineligible. This left swathes of people in need of legal advice, unable to afford it and no longer eligible for government assistance. This has directly caused a significant decline in the number of civil cases brought to court-i.e. people can no longer enforce their rights as they cannot afford to do so. LASPO has hit the most vulnerable of our society-the working class, those on benefits, people seeking asylum and those in need of housing. The Law Commission has claimed that ‘public access to the justice system has never been so restricted’. People on low incomes are being denied their right to a fair trial, a basic right, as they are denied legal representation and cannot afford it on their own.
Lack of legal aid also causes more extreme poverty. People cannot afford legal representation to deal with legal issues, which leads to larger problems and then homelessness, bad debt, etc. For example, a person who is wrongfully dismissed from their job may not have the means to get a lawyer to challenge this. They are then left unable to pay rent, and are made homeless. The same would apply to a person going through a divorce; they cannot afford good representation and are left at a disadvantage. They are then left worse off financially than they would have been with the benefit of a lawyer, and the downward spiral ensues.
Also targeting the most vulnerable in our society are the cuts to benefits. Benefits have not even risen in line with inflation, meaning that the same level of benefits now actually has less financial value. This ensures the continuation of the poverty cycle, as those who are on benefits struggle with day to day costs, let alone with breaking out of this cycle. People in poverty are much less likely to be able to invest in housing or access opportunities that their wealthier counterparts would be able to. Families have to make the same amount of money now go further, and households are expected to cope with a reduction of £4.4 billion in 2019-2020 alone. The rise in citizens who rely on foodbanks is proof enough of the impact that these measures are having.
The two issues above are inextricably linked. The huge cuts to benefits have inevitably meant that those in need of, and deserving of benefits, have wrongfully been denied them. They are then left without the legal representation necessary to challenge these decisions. This has means that non-government organisations and charities have been left to pick up the slack and help those who have been affected. However, there are structural injustices in the benefits system, and organisations like ours must fight to combat them. For example, when a claimant is denied benefits, they can demand a Mandatory Reconsideration (MR). Problems in this procedure have been widely reported. A claimant must request an MR before they can fully appeal. A 2018 report showed that, at the MR stage, only 1/5 PIP decisions and 1/10 ESA decisions are overturned, yet at the appeal stage 69% of decisions are changed. This indicates a system that puts claimants under significant stress and pressure, and isn’t fair or effective. This is where voluntary sector organisations assist- in two years, GMLC have reclaimed over £1.5 million in wrongly-denied benefits.
However, the demand for advice and representation is greater than we can supply. That’s why we campaign for structural changes; for a society that doesn’t rely on charities to stand up for our vulnerable.