As a firm we have a number of pro bono schemes but the one I want to focus on is the LawWorks Welfare Benefits First-tier Tribunal Representation project. This involves pairs of BCLP volunteers acting on behalf of individuals who are appealing a benefits decision (generally employment support allowance or personal independence payment).
The clients are referred to the scheme by LawWorks who provide support both to the clients and to the pro bono lawyers. Their training and assistance are vital. In each of these cases our clients are appealing against a decision denying them their entitlement to a benefit. To my eyes at least, most of the time these initial decisions are obviously incorrect but often occur due to a lack of support provided to the client when they were completing the relevant forms or simply an unwillingness by the client to reveal the full extent of their mental or physical difficulties.
We start by meeting the clients and discussing their day to day lives. A key aspect of this meeting is ensuring the client feels comfortable being fully open with us. Often, and understandably, clients may feel embarrassed about their difficulties. As with all matters (pro bono or otherwise) having all the information ensures we can put forward the strongest case on behalf of the client and so building that trust and openness is one of the most important things we do.
Once we have all the information we need (and this may include liaising with the client’s GP or hospitals) we then work on the written submissions. Each benefit has a set of criteria which the client’s difficulties must fit into for their appeal to be successful. At this point there may be moments of frustration when a client has a particular difficulty which we feel should be a factor in any decision but which simply does not meet any of the criteria.
After the written submissions are provided to the Tribunal, we accompany the client to the hearing. This can be a nerve-wracking experience for the client, who may never have been in any kind of judicial setting before. Our role before the hearing is to explain to them what to expect, calm their nerves and generally let them know we are there to support them. During the hearing the Tribunal seeks to understand what the client’s daily life is like and we make oral submissions at the end of the hearing highlighting any key points or points we think were not made by the client.
I have been fortunate to be involved in a number of successful appeals and it is incredibly rewarding to know you have made a real difference to someone’s life. Our clients may be suffering from mental or physical issues I can only imagine and having someone guide them through the process and ensure their case is presented in the strongest possible way is vital to ensuring they receive the benefits to which they are entitled and which they do truly need.
Joseph Ninan is an associate at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner