Avon & Bristol Law Centre
Pro bono initiative of the year
The news that 90 people a month had died after being declared fit for work by the Department for Work and Pensions made headlines last summer. But while campaigners and the opposition called for an overhaul of the welfare system, law students at the Avon & Bristol Law Centre tackled the problem at its source.
Three years ago, centre head Andy King established a process by which student volunteers from the nearby University of Law campus and the University of the West of England (UWE) could advise benefits claimants and represent them at tribunals.
“This was borne of necessity, when we knew that legal aid cuts were coming and we were getting increasing numbers of requests for help from people who were having to claim their disability benefits under a new system,” King says. “Both new and existing claimants had to go through this process and because the rules were tougher many failed.
“This is the group of people who are often quite shy and socially withdrawn and completely unable to deal with cases themselves. They will fail if nobody helps them.”
Already deluged by student requests for hands-on client experience, King matched the needs of both students and clients. Initially working with just two UWE students, he designed template letters and systems by which the project could run. The first cohort of students trained their replacements and so the project’s self-perpetuating system was born.
This is the group of people who are often quite shy and socially withdrawn and completely unable to deal with cases themselves. They will fail if nobody helps them
Taking only the most gifted students, the project recruits from the end of undergraduates’ first years until graduation and runs on a rotational basis, with waves of volunteers starting three times a year.
Across the country, 59 per cent of people who challenge the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on its decision regarding whether they are fit to work win their case. In the Bristol centre, this rises to a staggering 95 per cent, a rate that casts doubts on the rigour of the DWP’s policy.
The system the Avon & Bristol Law Centre set up has been honed and developed since inception, but the initial success rate for claimants stood at 87 per cent – much higher than the national rate. In three years, more than 200 clients have been helped, with an average £5,000 per client regained in benefits.
“Having someone able and willing to put the time in and to collate all the evidence in a structured way is really valuable,” says University of Law volunteer Emma Vincent Miller.
“Clients face the choice of whether to have an oral hearing or to have their decision re-examined on paper and not many are confident enough to represent themselves at a hearing. People who don’t attend in person have much lower chance of success. They often don’t understand importance of medical evidence, too, whereas when we advise them, we contact their GP for a statement.”
A GP statement is just one element of the case file put together by students. If a client approaches the centre after being found fit for work by a medical assessor, King will assess the merits of their cases and, if he believes they have cause to challenge the decision, will refer clients to students.
Each client will then have a meeting with their assigned student volunteer, who will ask them about their life, medical history and the government medical assessment.
“We tie those answers to the law,” Vincent Miller explains. “We look at the relevant statues and case law, then compile witness statements from care workers or family members and ask their GP for a medical report. Because that’s outside of doctors’ normal duties, clients usually have to pay £50 for it, but we advise them to do that, as it’s very useful evidence.”
The student caseworkers then write a legal submission and submit it, with the evidence, to the tribunal, which they accompany their client to.
In such a highly competitive category, judges were struck with the direct impact that the Avon & Bristol team had in its local community. One judge says: “This is a meaningful collaboration by a law centre getting disability claimants excellent legal representation and university students concrete and urgently needed experience that helps the community. This programme should be a model for pro-bono collaboration between legal education providers and the public sector.”
“The success rates speak for themselves,” another judge comments. “This is simply inspiring work with benefits on all sides: the general public, the students and society as a whole.”
Another judge says: “This pro-bono initiative is a stand-out, with all of the elements that point to true added value and contributing positively to society – out future generation of law students are getting real and practical experience dealing with live issues affecting the vulnerable and the success rate is excellent. This model has already gained wide recognition and is being replicated across other parts of the country.”