UWE Lawyers help overturn decisions by the Department of Work and Pensions
They’ve overturned 95 per cent of ‘Fit To Work’ rulings, allowing people to keep their benefits
Over the past two months, Law students at UWE have been volunteering to help Bristolians in and out of court defend themselves against the Department of Work and Pensions, with great success.
In just two months, a team of 17 volunteer lawyers have helped 96 per cent of cases get overturned, allowing the mentally and physically ill to keep their benefits, resulting in over £100,000 being paid back to helpless claimants. This smashes the national average of 59 per cent of cases overturned.
Speaking to The Huffington Post, Andy King, Legal Adviser at the Avon & Bristol Law Centre said: “As a result of the publicity the project received last year, we have managed to secure additional funding from a grant-making trust which is committed to improving access to effective legal advice for people needing social welfare support.”
When speaking about the project’s impact he said: “This will enable us to help many more claimants appealing against decisions that they are fit for work but also expand into other areas of law effected by the cuts in Legal Aid in 2013 (such as housing law) and to work to develop similar services in other parts of the UK.”
“The impact on client’s lives cannot be over-stated: the process of being found fit for work is hugely demoralising for people with physical health problems but much worse for those whose mental health is fragile and for whom the process can be devastating.”
We chatted to UWE third year Law student Anna Nash about how she’s helping claimants, and how a Law student can do what she does.
Do you think the UWE Law students have made a big difference?
Judging by the client satisfactions scores, they have left feeling very happy with the results. Our client satisfaction survey indicates consistent scores between very satisfied and completely satisfied – 80-100 per cent. We have won 95 per cent of cases out of the last 200. It was 96 per cent but unfortunately we lost a case on Friday.
In terms of my specific experience with clients, I have seen the effects being asked to work has had on their lives due to their ongoing physical and mental health problems. This is particularly emphasised with mental health clients, who usually experience a worsening of their condition after being told they need to look for work. I have had the unfortunate experience of seeing clients cry when I have been interviewing them, or before and after hearings.
This is due to the pressure they are under. The struggle these clients go through in their daily lives is quite difficult for mentally and physically healthy people to imagine, unless they are directly experiencing these difficulties themselves. Often, the health difficulties the clients are experiencing is already too much pressure for them on a daily basis, let alone the additional pressure of being asked to work.
After leaving a hearing where the client has won you can usually see they are totally relieved. If they have brought friends or family along with them they are also extremely grateful, having seen and understood the difficulties the client experiences and having helped them on a weekly basis.
How long have you been doing this? And has it been worthwhile?
I have been working at the law centre for around a year I think, but I do not know the exact date I started. I cannot emphasise enough how worthwhile this experience has been for me. The most important thing for me is that I am directly engaged in work where I am helping people. This gives me a lot of satisfaction and meaning to me personally.
Second to this is the skills I have picked up. I have advanced my legal writing and research skills and have built confidence in public speaking. I have also had the pleasure of working under my supervisor, Andy King, who is very supportive and genuinely wants the volunteers to enhance their own skills and progress as individuals.
What advice would you give to other law students wanting to help?
My first advice would be to study hard and get the best grades – 2.1 or higher. The voluntary position requires hard work and often the ability to understand legal cases and write legal arguments.
On top of this any relevant work experience would be of use, as well as being able to empathise and work with clients from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is also important that the volunteers are available for 30 weeks, 4 hours per week, including most of the summer.