Law students 1 – 0 Iain Duncan Smith
Law student volunteers at a Bristol legal advice centre have successfully appealed 95% of the Department of Work and Pensions “fit for work” decisions they have been assigned to handle.
The students, who are sourced from the University of West England and the University of Law, are part of Avon & Bristol Law Centre’s ‘Legal Advocacy Support Project’.
The scheme itself — which is staffed by the students, who are in turn supervised by trained advisors — defends vulnerable members of society who have been deemed fit to work and have appealed this finding.
Volunteers have helped over 200 people in matters concerning social security and child support payments over the last two years.
With an average rebate of £5,000 for each client, last week saw the centre surpass the £1 million total for welfare benefits won. According to the Bristol Cable, the students’ success rate is 36 percentage points higher than the national average for such cases of 59%. So it appears that the wannabe lawyers are not only key to the project’s success, but potentially Iain Duncan Smith’s worst nightmare.
Figures reported in the Guardian last week showed that between 2011 and 2014 2380 people died shortly after being declared fit to work. Despite those in government dismissing a connection between the stats and welfare reforms, the huge student success rate highlights flaws in the current assessment system — and the growing value of free legal advice centres.
Volunteers for the Legal Advocacy Support Project draft witness statements, request medical evidence, write legal submissions and even represent their clients in front of an appeal judge and a doctor. This hands on approach to learning is clearly a valuable experience for the aspiring lawyers, as all of those taking part in the project who have graduated this summer have bagged firsts.
Second year UWE law student and volunteer Kinga Burzynska said:
The project has improved my legal knowledge, hands-on legal experience and given me invaluable time with clients. It reminds me of what difficulties people have to go through to get their rights. Making a difference to them is highly rewarding.
Andy King, who supervises the law student, highlighted the important role law students play in the scheme:
Our students have provided much needed legal help to over 200 vulnerable individuals who wouldn’t know where to start in challenging the decision that they are fit for work. Due to the cuts in legal aid, we could only help a tiny fraction of that number without the law students. I am confident the law centre can build on the project’s success, helping a lot more people that cannot afford to pay for legal advice.