White & Case's London office is partnering with University House, a legal advice centre based in one of the city's poorest boroughs, on a pro bono program to help individuals regain essential disability benefits that may have been withdrawn in error.
Following a series of welfare reforms in the UK, scores of individuals—unable to work as a result of physical disabilities, long-term illness or mental health issues—have faced the abrupt termination of benefits payments upon being reassessed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for entitlement to a new benefits system. Recipients of both Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP) have been affected. Leading disability NGOs argue that these assessments are inaccurate in particular findings and unfair in overall outcomes. Furthermore, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reported "reliable evidence that the threshold of grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities has been met" in relation to the operation of such assessments. Many former ESA and PIP recipients have been forced to turn to food banks for daily support as their payments have ceased.
Across the UK in 2016, 500,000 such assessments went to appeal. However, fewer than one fifth were made with legal representation, diminishing the likelihood of success. University House has been inundated with requests for support in making appeals and the centre considers the mass stoppage of payments—many based on assessments that are later determined to be erroneous—to be a disability discrimination issue. It has established a pro bono advocacy scheme with lawyers from firms based in the City of London, including White & Case, to help meet the demand.
A partnership to meet the new need
More than 30 lawyers from all practices groups and at all levels of qualification in our London office have been trained by University House's specialist lawyers to provide advocacy at ESA and PIP appeals. Our volunteers meet with clients to discuss their appeals and then prepare and present submissions to the First Tier Tribunal, which decides matters relating to Social Security and Child Support. This differs from the traditional model of pro bono assistance at advice clinics, where lawyers meet once with clients to provide on-the-spot advice on a single legal issue.
Thus far, we have taken on seven appeals, winning six of the cases, with a further appeal on the seventh case on the horizon. "Our participation in University House's advocacy scheme aligns well with the focus of White & Case's global pro bono program on access to justice," said London Social Responsibility Manager Sophie Orr. "The aim is to help affected individuals to fairly access the disability benefits allowances to which they are entitled."
University House has also attested to the impact of our work: "White & Case is one of our key partners on this project and has several trained advocates available to take up cases," said Eddie Coppinger, the Director of University House. "Their advocates have shown great interest in helping these clients and come across as being very enthusiastic, conscientious and empathetic in all their dealings with clients."
Associates make a difference
As a solicitor advocate in our London disputes group, former associate Thomas Wingfield recently represented a client suffering from both psychological and physical conditions. Thomas's submission to the Tribunal described how assessors had failed to take into account the cumulative effect of the client's disabilities—a constellation of physical as well as mental illnesses connected to a traumatic history involving both child and domestic abuse. The appeal tribunal held up Thomas' submission as something they "placed particular reliance upon" when they reached their decision to restore the client's benefits.
In such cases, high-quality written statements by lawyers can bring clarity to the process, preventing any misunderstanding of the obstacles face by clients. "In addition to providing human sympathy and support, the main thing we can provide, as lawyers, is structure," Thomas said. "Our written statements bring clarity to an otherwise unstructured and confusing situation. This is particularly important given the limited amount of time that the Tribunal has to decide any given case."
Beth Montpetit, another solicitor in the London office, has taken on a number of PIP appeal cases. She most recently acted on behalf of a client who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Within 24 hours, Beth and trainee Tom Wilkinson met the client to discuss his appeal, drafted a written submission summarizing the client's medical history as well as the debilitating effects that his mental health issues have on his daily life, and then appeared in front of the Tribunal. After reading the written submission, the Tribunal restored the client's benefits and also pointed out that he was entitled to additional benefits for a three-year period, which will enable him to hire a care worker to help him on a daily basis.
As Beth explained, "This individual has no one to look out for him and seems to fall through the cracks because he is physically in good health. But his mental health condition means that he lives a very difficult life. We've hopefully set our client on a path where he can regain a sense of normality in his life."
Supervising partner Robert Wheal commented: "It's a win-win. Our work with University House will help individuals in need navigate the complexities of appealing to the Tribunal, while allowing our lawyers to develop key legal skills at the same time." Fellow supervising partner Rory Hishon added: "In terms of scalability, this partnership has the potential to positively impact many people for years to come by ensuring that those in need have fair access to disability benefits. We look forward to continuing to work with University House on this important issue."