Cover picture: bus workers on strike in April 2021 following their employer Go North West’s decision to use ‘Fire and Rehire’ tactics, laying off workers and then offering them new contracts under worse terms and conditions, with the threat of redundancy if they do not agree to the changed terms. The workers entered an indefinite strike against this attack in February 2021. The strike has, at the time of this article, been going on for 8 weeks. Click here for more information from Unite the Union.
In this article, GMLC campaigns volunteer Hoejong Jeong writes about the coming surge in need for legal support around employment, debt and welfare issues. Using examples of real people’s experiences, he shows that the gaps in legal aid provision will leave a large number of people without the legal advice and representation they need.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, nearly 700,000 people have lost their jobs. Unsurprisingly, household debt levels in the UK have also been soaring, with the number of households facing potential ‘problem debt’ projected to rise by 35% according to Pro Bono Economics. The report found that there could be at least 1.5 million households at risk of problem debt by mid-2021 as a result of the economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis. Loss of income has contributed to the sky-rocketing number of people falling into rent arrears and almost a quarter of a million tenants have fallen behind on their rent payments.
Although the further extension to the eviction ban and the furlough scheme has been delaying the worst of the consequences, a steep surge in individuals facing homelessness, redundancy and unfair dismissal is expected when the schemes end in May and September respectively.
During these times of financial hardship, many people will find themselves in need of legal advice around their debt, housing and employment situations. But as a result of the implementation of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), eligibility for legal aid is extremely low in these areas. For debt issues, legal aid has only been retained for those cases where there is an imminent risk of eviction, and it is no longer available for employment law except in discrimination cases. As a result, millions of people could be caught in what the Law Centres Network calls the ‘justice gap’.
The following examples give a brief insight into where people could be denied access to justice due to legal aid budget cuts and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I did what the government told me to do, but lost my job as a result.”
However, according to Protect, a whistleblowing charity, there has been an increase in complaints ignored by employers during lockdown after concerns over furlough fraud and safety rule breaches.
Protect also found that one in five employees who raised the concerns have been unfairly dismissed as a result. However, with the current LASPO provision, legal aid is unavailable for those who are treated badly or unfairly dismissed as a result of raising concerns over furlough fraud and safety rule breaches.
Terry worked in a food factory when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. He raised concerns with his employers about the lack of Covid-19 safety measures at work. He reported the issue of staff queuing in corridors, which was not compliant with social distancing guidelines, but this was ignored by HR. On another occasion, he was told not to come into work wearing a face mask, and when he did, he was suspended. Later on, staff were permitted to wear face masks, but Terry has been dismissed nevertheless. Terry’s case was supported by his union and he appealed the dismissal.
Without a union’s support, many employees will be left to defend their legal rights themselves against the employers without legal aid support – or they may find themselves in a situation where they have no recourse to justice for what their employer has done. Joining a union is a good first step, but with union membership at a low ebb – especially in the private sector – there is still an urgent need for good, free legal advice and representation for employment issues.
At the intersection of debt, the benefits system and housing insecurity
Following a knife attack, Tony suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, which left him no choice but to rely on the benefits system.
However, despite his doctor’s opinion, welfare officers assessed him as fit for work, and his benefits were cut because he had not attended a jobseeker’s meeting that he was not even aware of.
Tony went without any income for seven months. He asked for help from family and friends and borrowed money, but eventually became unable to pay his rent. His debts spiralled. When Tony’s rent arrears reached £10,000, the local authorities attempted to evict him. It was only when he was facing an imminent risk of eviction that Tony became eligible for legal aid. His legal aid lawyer managed to pause the eviction process and Tony was given more time to sort out his finances.
According to his solicitor, had Tony been able to access legal assistance earlier, his problems could have been addressed long before it reached crisis point. Legal aid for those facing difficult situations such as Tony’s would have been available in most areas of law before LASPO came into force in 2013.
GMLC encourages all workers to join trade unions and to get in touch with your union if you are facing any issues at work. Legal advice works best as a supplement to workplace trade union membership and activity, not as a replacement, as many difficulties at work are not covered by legal rights or protections.
For those who cannot turn to their trade union or do not have one, GMLC has an employment service which can give advice and support. Contact our Reception or firstname.lastname@example.org to speak to one of our team. For those with debt issues, you may wish to seek the support of a debt advisor e.g. from National Debtline here.