LawWorks supports lawyers to develop expertise in areas of social welfare law, where legal need is significant and supply is limited. Pro bono volunteers build up knowledge through structured training, supervision and mentoring. The projects deal with social security law (disability benefits), employment law (unpaid wages), and community care law.
Welfare benefits project
The welfare benefits advocacy project1 helps individuals in London in relation to three benefits: Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Personal Independence Payment (PIP), and Universal Credit. ESA provides financial support to people unable to work on the grounds of sickness or disability, and PIP provides financial support for the additional costs of living with a long-term health condition or disability. Universal Credit is a payment to help with living costs, and is slowly being introduced across the UK as a single benefit replacing existing benefits including ESA.
In relation to each benefit, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) assesses an individual’s health and then decides whether, and to what extent, they should receive the benefit. Assessments either take place upon an individual applying for a benefit or because the term of the benefit award is due to expire and the individual is being re-assessed. A reassessment can also be triggered by a change of circumstances during the period of an award.
It is not compulsory to be represented by a lawyer – or anyone – at an appeal. Individuals can receive assistance from advice organisations in relation to their initial application for benefits. If advice organisations are unable to represent individuals in relation to a tribunal hearing, they may be referred to LawWorks. LawWorks currently works with seven referral organisations, including a Citizens Advice service, Toynbee Hall, the Personal Support Unit and several community health-focused organisations.
The project provides legal representation to individuals who are appealing to the First-tier Tribunal a decision by the DWP to remove, to reduce or not to grant an award. Upon a successful appeal the tribunal can make a non-binding recommendation that the DWP should not reassess the individual, most commonly for a period of 24 months.
Working with volunteer solicitors from eight member law firms, so far this year LawWorks have placed 45 cases with volunteers. LawWorks’ in-house solicitor supervises pairs of volunteer solicitors who conduct casework, including client interviews and tribunal advocacy. The volunteer’s success rate is over 95%. This year they have secured several recommendations that the benefits be awarded on longer term or indefinite basis, including two indefinite PIP awards and a further PIP award recommending no reassessment within ten years. In respect of ESA and Universal Credit, there have been two recommendations of no further reassessment.
Nationally, ESA appeals are down by 42% compared to a year ago, although much of this is due to the introduction of Universal Credit. PIP appeals are also down by 14%. This may, in part, be due to a slow-down in the transfer of claimants from Disability Living Allowance to PIP. Overall, although social security and child support appeals are down 19% on a year ago, the time it takes for appeals to be dealt with is rising in spite of a diminishing caseload. The average time for a case to be dealt with has risen to 30 weeks, up from 24 weeks a year ago. Roughly 74% of appeals are upheld in the individual’s favour in relation to ESA, 73% for PIP.
There is no typical LawWorks client, other than that typically they find the assessment and appeals system intimidating and complicated, and many have complex health conditions. Two recent clients of LawWorks highlight the importance of the project’s work.
Lynda suffered major organ failure caused by childhood diabetes. As an adult she continues to suffer chronic kidney and heart function issues, is partially sighted and needs monthly laser treatment. She needs to be accompanied everywhere by her mother, who is her carer. Lynda attended a tribunal two years ago in respect of her claim for PIP; she found the experience stressful, complicated and daunting. The DWP decided to reassess Lynda, which she found exhausting and unnecessary given that a tribunal had previously found her entitled to PIP. Following referral from a local advice organisation, LawWorks successfully assisted Lynda to increase her PIP award and she is now entitled to the enhanced rate of both the mobility component and the daily living component. She later commented: “It was so nice having the lawyers attend the hearing with me; I felt so supported. It was a completely different experience to my previous tribunal which I attended with my mother, which left us feeling anxious and worried. I am so grateful for the assistance that LawWorks gave to me, and it made the whole process so much easier to cope with”.
Gail has multiple disabilities including a serious long-term condition that has damaged her hip function, leaving her in severe pain when walking. Her doctors have said she is likely to require a double hip replacement even though she is only 44 years old. Gail has twin 10 year old daughters – one has cerebral palsy and is in a special needs school, resulting in Gail having to do separate school runs for each of the children. Gail had previously been awarded PIP and had used this award to obtain a Motability car (a leased car that can be adapted to suit the disability of the driver). As a result of reassessment, Gail’s mobility award was removed and her Motability car was due to be taken away. LawWorks assisted Gail to keep the car whilst her appeal was determined and pro bono volunteers successfully represented her at tribunal. The tribunal awarded her both the mobility and daily living components for an indefinite period.
LawWorks is proud to have assisted Gail and Lynda, but it is clear that their cases should never have had to proceed to appeal, with the associated additional stress and uncertainty. There are others who are unable to find such support, and unable to effectively seek redress or challenge the system, often because of the very factors which entitle their need for support in the first place.
1. The welfare benefits advocacy project is kindly funded by Therium Access