Avon and Bristol Law Centre is this week celebrating a milestone achievement: recovering one million pounds for clients through challenging 'fit for work' test decisions at tribunal.
The Legal Advocacy Support Project (LASP) involves law students from the University of the West of England and from the University of Law. Under the supervision of a Law Centre welfare benefits specialist, they helped over 200 clients gather evidence and put together their case.
The student volunteers then helped clients by representing them at the benefits tribunal - with an impressive 95% success rate, regaining an average of £5,000 per client. In the process they gained valuable practical experience while helping the Law Centre extend its help to more people in need.
The Department of Work and Pensions' controversial Work Capability Assessments (WCA) has been repeatedly criticised for questionable 'fit to work' decisions, the high rate of these decisions being overturned, delays in appealing the decisions and the hardship caused to claimants. Last week's official statistics of benefits-related deaths have sparked fresh concerns that the system is seriously flawed.
ABLC benefits specialist Andy King, who supervises the students, said:
Due to the cuts in legal aid, we could only help a tiny fraction of that number without the law students. I am confident the Law Centre can build on the project’s success, helping a lot more people that cannot afford to pay for legal advice.
Nimrod Ben Cnaan, head of policy and profile at Law Centres Network, said:
The Law Centre has been doing excellent work with its volunteers and Bristol is, quite literally, the richer for them. But let's remember: before being cut, legal aid for benefits appeals had a 90% success rate and cost the state only 0.18% of the value of unclaimed benefits.** Most importantly, it was available everywhere - not just where there are volunteers and a dedicated project funded by a charity. We call on government to restore this level of support for disadvantaged and often vulnerable people.
Follow the story as it was covered -
In national media:
- BBC Radio 5 Live feature (from 8:40)
- BBC News
- New Statesman
- The Independent
- The Daily Mirror
- Huffington Post
- The Guardian - Patrick Butler's Cuts Blog
In trade/legal media:
In local media:
** "The vast majority of legally-aided clients [in appeals] are successful in bringing their cases. As the state is usually the losing party, this in itself should give government pause for thought." See the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council response to initial proposals to cut civil legal aid, in early 2011, in particular paragraphs 21-24.