Those who read these pages, follow on Twitter or have waded through the book will know that access to justice is a cause about which I’m prone to making a fair bit of noise. The rule of law only works if individuals have the means to enforce their rights in the courts, which is only possible if they have access to proper legal advice and representation. Not everybody, of course, can afford to pay privately for legal services, in the same way that most people cannot pay for private healthcare. This is why legal aid is often talked about in the same breath as the NHS and other pillars of the post-war welfare state. It should act as a safety net, ensuring that everybody has the ability to enforce their legal rights and that nobody is excluded from the justice system for lack of money.
Regrettably, as well we know, legal aid does not evoke the same degree of public sympathy or affection as healthcare or education. As a consequence, it has been politically possible for governments of all stripes to strip away legal aid from large swathes of the population, including many of the most vulnerable among us. The result is that often people are forced into a Sophie’s choice between representing themselves in complex legal proceedings, or simply not even trying. To lean on my favourite healthcare analogy, they are invited either to operate on themselves or just accept that they won’t get treatment.
This justice gap is why the work of pro bono legal charities is so vital. Like with food banks, we would rather live in a society where such charitable endeavours were not needed; however, for those with nowhere else to turn, pro bono units provide the safety net where the state would let people fall. And this is why I am delighted and honoured to announce that I have joined the Free Representation Unit (FRU) as a patron.
FRU was set up as a charity in 1972, and specialises in social security and employment law, providing free legal representation to clients unable to afford to pay for lawyers. Its representatives are volunteers – many of whom are trainee lawyers – and it is reliant on charitable grants and donations to fund a team of staff running the office and supervising the 500 cases it takes on each year.
At present, FRU is seeking funding to support disabled people, particularly those with mental health issues, through social security appeals tribunals, with a focus on Personal Independence Payment (PIP) appeals. A crowd-funding campaign is launched this week, with an initial target of £2,500.
If anybody reading is able to make a donation – however small – it would be hugely appreciated. I am kicking things off with a donation of my own, and we have 30 days to reach our target.
Thank you x
“Any legal case is a daunting prospect for anyone, but particularly for our clients if they suffer from mental health conditions. Our recent work has seen us act for a victim of criminal violence with a split personality disorder, a client who suffers from post-concussion syndrome following an attack during the Tottenham Riots, and a victim of a violent rape now suffering from severe PTSD.
Supporting these claimants as they re-live such traumatic events makes a huge difference to their experience of litigation and their chances of success. This means they get money to cover the costs of their disability. For our clients, the lack of Legal Aid means that they can’t afford to be represented.
The Chairman of the Work & Pensions Parliamentary Select Committee recently said that “Claiming a benefit to which you are legitimately entitled should never be a humiliating, distressing experience. Government must move now, faster, to make this right.”
Research with people with legal problems recently found that “The process of trying to pursue justice without legal aid added extra physical and mental strain, which may exacerbate existing physical and mental health issues or cause new ones. This was particularly noticeable for disabled participants, who found the stress of trying to resolve a welfare issue with inadequate advice made their health condition worse”.
The benefit of legal advice is clear: people who are represented are successful in 65% of cases whereas those who are unrepresented are successful in only 45% of cases. We help our clients to get their voices heard so that decision makers truly understand their situation.
If a tribunal agrees with the client’s benefit appeal they could receive between £22 and £145 per week in social security payments. For disabled people on a low income this could mean the difference between not leaving the house and having a life or not having to choose between heating and eating.
By supporting FRU you would contribute to a charity that makes a clear difference to the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
We represent on average two clients in a tribunal haring every working day of the year. Over a year one legal casework supervisor can support hundreds of volunteers. £2500 will enable us to pay a legal supervisor for a whole month to support our volunteers to do a great job. Raising more would keep our service going for longer.”