Islington Law Centre calls for legal aid to help Universal Credit claimants
Individuals desperately trying to get help, Islington Law Centre director warns
Friday, 2nd November 2018 — By Samantha Booth
Ruth Hayes at Islington Law Centre in Angel
A FREE legal advice centre gearing up for an influx of calls around universal credit is urging the government to bring back legal aid for benefits cases.
Ruth Hayes, co-director at Islington Law Centre, has warned that vulnerable people face going into debt to cover the cost of challenging changes to their benefits.
The centre, in Devonia Road, is funded by Islington Council, charities and individual donors, including law firms.
Legal aid currently only exists for cases at the Upper Tribunal, not those at a lower level, leading to a drop in cases being appealed.
Ms Hayes told the Tribune: “Universal credit is being brought in at a time when other services in the community are under real pressure.
“It’s been rolled out in a context where other support is being cut right back. That’s leaving individuals desperately trying to get help.
“Caseworkers are telling me that the cases around universal credit are taking longer as people now need income, debt and housing advice as they are at risk of losing their home. So that involves three case workers and that can be incredibly stressful for people.
“We are very grateful for the support from current funders, but I would strongly welcome the government putting social welfare law and benefits back into the scope for legal aid, which is one of the issues that many groups have called for as part of their response to the government’s review of the impact of legal aid changes.”
Ms Hayes said the centre had seen residents with literacy difficulties or those without a computer struggling to apply online for universal credit. Others have been at risk of losing their home in the private sector if they cannot pay their rent during the five-week waiting gap before the first universal credit payment.
“People are in an impossible position and we would encourage them to seek help as early as possible,” said Ms Hayes. The centre has seen a “dramatic” increase in disability-related inquiries. “We are at 27 appeals a month and won £2m for claimants last year that they wouldn’t have got without our help,” said Ms Hayes.
The Department for Work and Pensions said it had announced a £39m partnership with Citizens Advice to provide support. An additional £1bn will support certain benefits claimants as they move to universal credit.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Last year, we spent over £1.6bn on legal aid for those who need it most and we are reviewing the reforms made in 2012.”