July Update – Birmingham

I’ve just added a couple of posts from the session I did with Z2K in London. There will be a few more posts to follow.

It was a great day and as with all good experiences I learnt a lot about the world and myself.

Time, process and workflow, on reflection, I underestimated. But that’s okay as my innate creative state always sends me back to the drawing board to redesign and improve where I can. In many ways that’s one of my favourite parts of this journey.

Living near Birmingham it is easier (and to be blunt more affordable) for me to focus on people who work in law, legal education and the justice process in that rough geographic location. The parts that matter for me are the person and their story.

If that is you or you know someone who may be interested in participating please let me know.

Jon 

“The most fundamental thing people need is a home.”

I worked in legal aid for 15 years and this is my first role not doing legal aid. Coming from that background, I’m able to identify aspects of cases and policies that are unlawful. I can refer cases to colleagues I used to work with and I know what’s in the scope of legal aid and what’s not.

I try to get caseworkers to think not just about the presenting problem, but about what we can do so that clients don’t come back in four to six weeks time at a stage at which their problem is critical.

We help a lot of people with JSA, ESA and PIP but I think the most fundamental thing people need is a home. I firmly believe a judge doesn’t want to evict someone – they want someone to give them a reason why they shouldn’t.

I had one client who was facing eviction from social housing, he’d been in and out of employment and had run up £11,000 in arrears. I couldn’t get a solicitor to take it on. That’s an unusual case but I asked him to make a payment and we helped him not to lose his home.”

“People think a rough sleeper is a grizzled, dirty alcoholic or drug user but many are not”

“I came to this work later in life. I was over 50 and had my own business for 15 years. I don’t have any legal or professional training. If I have anything I am good at, it is that people do seem to open up to me.

Initially, after the coalition government got in and announced the cuts, it was obvious there was going to be a big problem with homelessness and there was a perception that it was going to be families that were affected. Initially it was but it has morphed.

Now I deal a lot with rough sleepers. To most people, a rough sleeper is a grizzled, dirty alcoholic or drug user, sitting with a cardboard cup somewhere. But many are not like that. One man that comes to mind was university and public school educated whose business had failed, another couldn’t cope with modern life such as signing on or mobile phones and probably had low-level mental health problems, a third had been caring for his smother in Leicester but when she died he lost his home after falling out with this sister and caught the night bus to London because he couldn’t face staying in the city where he and his family were known.

I’m making this sound very elevated and altruistic but there’s a big side of it that’s deeply frustrating. We can deal with people that have mental health problems and personality disorders and there are people trying to game the system. I’ve been around the block a few times and that’s given me a depth of understanding and an ability to connect. You have to read people, build their trust and find out what’s going on.”

“Access to justice is one of those barometers of what we care about as a society.”

I was working at another charity and colleagues told me about this job. I’m also working towards becoming a barrister. We do a mixture of things but I hadn’t done a huge amount involving housing law before coming here. I do housing now, often where there’s a mixture of that and a question about the client’s eligibility, because it draws on what I did before, I have to be careful about what I can do as you can get into trouble for practising immigration law if you are not properly accredited. Usually people from the European Union have more complicated cases. If you’re from outside the EU it is more clear cut. You might have limited leave to remain in the UK without recourse to public funds. If you’re from the EU, your eligibility to claim depends on what you are doing e.g. whether you are employed or self-employed. All that gets me engaged because it involves analytical thinking.

When I tell people what I do or who I work for nobody ever says “What does that mean?” or “What’s the point of that?” Access to justice is one of those barometers of what we care about as a society. Do we really care about the single mother from Romania who is out on the streets?

My daughter said: “I don’t want to be a lawyer like you.”

I was a commercial lawyer for 30 years. One day, when my daughter was 15, she said to me: “I want to be a lawyer but I don’t want to be a lawyer like you. I want to be a lawyer that does good.”
Now there’s nothing wrong with being a lawyer but I didn’t want to be on my deathbed and think that that was all I had done. So I started looking for a charitable project to work on. Z2K was perfect because it does two things. It provides services to individuals and it uses their stories to campaign for changes in the law.
Providing services is very satisfying because we can help almost everybody who comes to us. The system is so poor that a bit of articulacy and knowledge of rights can go a long way. But we see the same problems over and over and it would be very frustrating if that was all we did, without campaigning.
I’ve been doing this for eight years and I’ve got more angry over time. So many aspects of welfare reform are political and don’t save money. Our clients’ lives are being destroyed so that the government can please the Daily Mail.