Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) celebrates its 40th birthday this year. For four decades this small organisation has campaigned for the rights of poorer families against the barriers of bureaucracy. Leading the legal fight for CPAG is Stewart Wright, technically the group’s head of legal. In practice, he prefers to be known simply as ‘legal officer’, as CPAG’s legal capacity consists merely of Wright and his second-in-command Sarah Clarke. In total the organisation employs in the region of 40 staff, working from CPAG’s North London headquarters.
CPAG has developed quite significantly from its original aim. “It was initially set up by academics to study the effects of poverty on children and families with children,” says Wright. Research and publishing is still a major part of what the group does, with much of its £2.6m income coming from reports.
Nowadays the legal profile of CPAG has grown considerably, and it takes on around a dozen new cases each year, ranging from issues before the Social Security Comm-issioners right up to Europe. Legal spend is “tens of thousands” according to Wright, although it varies depending on what cases come through the door each year.
“We pick and choose the types of legal cases which identify particular pinch points,” Wright explains. “My job is to identify those cases which we’d want to take on as test cases, and then run them through the courts.”
Problems that concern CPAG include the administration of benefits, such as child benefit, the administration of tax credits, and social security issues. “I’ve always been a bit of a social security trainspotter,” admits Wright.
Cases are referred to CPAG from second-tier advice agencies such as Citizens Advice Bureaux, or sometimes the courts themselves. Wright describes the group as “effectively shadowing” the work of the Department of Work and Pensions and also Revenue & Customs. But he will not take on just any case. “We’re looking at setting precedent, we don’t tend to start off in the lowest level of the courts,” he says.
Recent cases carried out by CPAG have included the benefit cases of Campbell v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Hinchy v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, both of which concerned the rules regarding the recovery of overpaid benefits. Unfortunately for CPAG and the claimants, the Lords found for the Government in both cases. However, the judgments did clarify the law and the process by which benefits are paid. CPAG also celebrated a win last year in Europe, when the European Court of Justice decided that the right to social security benefits was covered by the European Treaty for the Freedom of Movement.
Wright, who qualified as a barrister after spending eight years working in a law centre, instructs counsel directly for the cases he takes to court. “If there was such a thing,” he says, Landmark Chambers’ Richard Drabble QC would be CPAG’s standing counsel. But Wright also goes regularly to Blackstone Chambers’ John Howell QC for advice. Juniors instructed include Dave Forsdick, Dan Kolinsky and James Maurici at Landmark, and Blackstone’s Dinah Rose and Tom Weisselberg. David Pannick QC and Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, also of Blackstone, have been instructed in the past.
“What’s very pleasing is that as the work’s become mainstream, we use very high-quality barristers to do cases for us,” says Wright, adding that he chooses counsel who have an affinity with what CPAG does.
Counsel work for CPAG on both a funded and pro bono basis, depending on the case. If it is available, Wright will seek legal aid for his cases – something that was not possible in the past.
“Some legal aid is forthcoming, but it’s intensely bureaucratic,” he says. “We’ll always ask to get funding, most particularly for the protection that legal aid gives against the other side’s costs.”
Getting funding does not stop Wright from taking a case to court, or dealing with an issue. One current topic close to CPAG’s heart is the issue of tax credits. Drabble has been instructed on a potential test case against Revenue & Customs, which is due to be launched shortly.
Wright is also campaigning on the issue of children giving evidence to tribunals. “We’ve got a very strong decision from a tribunal of social security commissioners saying that, in effect, an appeal tribunal should never call a child to give evidence. It highlighted a real lacuna in the rules for the tribunal.”
But not everything always goes to plan. Wright says he is disappointed that courts are sometimes reluctant to get involved in issues which involve legislation on finances.
Broadly, though, he believes CPAG is helping social security move forward, and finds his work stimulating. “The challenge is to try and get across that social security law is often dealing with cases that are just as legally complex as cases dealt with by senior partners at Clifford Chance,” concludes Wright.
Child Poverty Action Group
|Organisation||Child Poverty Action Group|
|Legal spend||Approximately £10,000|
|Legal officer||Stewart Wright|
|Reporting to||Chief executive Kate Green|
|Main counsel||Richard Drabble QC of Landmark Chambers and John Howell QC of Blackstone Chambers|