Post by nickd (Mylegal) on Jun 5, 2011 20:31:30 GMT
This is one of quite a few other posts over on Mylegal, it's one which is close to my heart, the Totnes 'Day of Action'. I decided to theme this as a community event and called it 'The Future of our Agencies'.
We held it in the Mansion House, in the high street of Totnes, a busy market town in rural South Hams. I call it the 'alternative' capital of the South West. The Mansion House brought back memories, it's where I did my sixth form many moons ago. These days it's a community centre. It made an ideal venue as it's got some well equipped meeting rooms in a new part at the back of what is a very historically fronted building.
I picked up my team from our nearby offices and off we set, not having a clue how the day would go. After unloading projectors, displays, boxes full of J4A promo material and dropping off my trusty team, I went back to my car. A yellow ticketed windscreen awaited me, I'd committed the cardinal sin of parking in a loading bay! Not a great start, especially as I had been unloading. I feel another appeal coming up! Not thwarted I went in search of a parking space, no easy task on market day in this bustling town of ours.
Hot and bothered, I eventually got a space and phoned my team, I was pleasantly surprised to hear people had already arrived and the man from Heart Radio was waiting. I got my skates on and quickly tried to recall my script.
A good attendance by local Councilors and even the Mayor!
It was good to see some councilors in what had become an already lively room, there seemed to be lots of chatting going on. I was glad to see my team trying to sell the service which is so much at risk if these perilous legal aid reforms go through. I noticed some gold chains and realized the mayor had joined us, this was good!
We got our message out on Heart Radio!
The radio announcement went well I think, I couldn't find the script I'd prepared in the early hours but it didn't seem to matter, when you feel passionate about what's at stake the words seem to - thankfully - flow. I've yet to hear it; - I don't think I said anything I'll regret, but hearing it may just have me changing my mind, I'll wait and hear how it comes across if I can locate the coverage.
With the broadcast over it was on to networking, more people had arrived, this was encouraging. It was great to see people turn up. Please let them stay I thought to myself. It was nice to catch up and have a chat with people you never seem to have the chance to talk to; I was amongst friends - always reassuring!
The time went in no time at all before the main meeting was due to start, I'd got the projector all set up and everything seemed to be at hand. Things were going well, I prayed to myself this would continue.
The meeting began..
And so the meeting started. Our managing chair Liz Owen gave an opening and recalled her long history with our and other cab's. Liz put some praise my way, but countered it with what one or too humorous remarks which I took in good spirit. Then she handed over to me.
Our Legal Aid presentation
I started with a power point presentation I'd been working on for the event. I'm seeing if I can get it on here for others to download. I think it got over the key points; a summary of which is...
(A) Not enough is known about how CAB have been funded by legal aid since 1999 when the Access to Justice Act introduced the Community Legal Service (CLS). I believe the CLS is the best thing to have come out of the Access to Justice Act. In my experience it was and could continue to serve our communities well.
(B) These reforms will effectively scrap the Community Legal Service.
(C) Reduction in our legal aid could lead to as much as 65% (using projected funding figures) being withdrawn. Reductions in local funding and county council funding as well as reduction in parish council grants and project funding could decimate service provision in our area.
(D) It was explained that under these reforms all legal help for benefits will go, debt work will be restricted to cases where people risk losing their homes.
(E) We have one of the highest rates of personal insolvencies in the country and benefit appeals have snowballed with around 2,400 cases waiting to be heard in Tribunals at Exeter and Plymouth.
(F) On appeal we get good results, around 60% or more on the new Employment & Support Allowance cases and 90% in other benefits.
(G) Our local cost per person for debt advice is 38p per person per year, it's 36p for benefits advice - exceptional value for the limited number who qualify.
(H) The words 'ludicrous', 'illogical' and 'madness' were all used; - people nodded in agreement.
(I) It was explained that the campaign was part of a huge national move by Justice for All and Sound Off For Justice, I pointed out the Ministry of Justice was flooded with over 5,000 responses and was shortly going to make an announcement on its response. There being little sign that the minister for legal aid had learned much from the consultation exercise.
(J) Everyone was urged to lobby their MP and not to keep quiet about this.
And so I moved on to throwing the meeting open for others to participate.
Thanks to all our attendees!
There were some excellent contributions from the attendees including, Hooper & Wollen solicitors, Rethink, Disability Information Service, Totnes Caring, Age Concern, Community Voluntary Services, an offender group rep, Westcountry Housing, Lameys (insolvency) Francis Clarke (accountants), Devon Family Solutions, Totnes Children's Centre, South Hams CAB and a PCT funded benefit advisor.
Key points which emerged
The keys points which came out of the discussion were these:
(1) The welfare reforms were hugely problematic and people needed specialist help to appeal, especially with the large number of Employment & Support Allowance appeals. Simplification of the benefit system was a long way off and would not be helped by outdated DWP software which wouldn't cope. The assessments which end up being the subject of appeals are unfair.
(2) People were on a knife edge, some were even suicidal.
(3) Volunteers, even from CAB, couldn't deal with the work which the specialists do.
(4) Offender rehabilitation would be more helped by a supportive welfare state with adequate advice on housing, debt, benefits, employment and family. Removal of support would increase the chances of repeat re-offending.
(5) The local council welcomes challenge as it helps improve decision-making and we already enjoy a relationship where we try to resolve matters without having to go to appeal.
(6) It was pointed out that family solicitors already use mediation where ever possible and avoid court action as a matter of routine. Good examples of family cases were given, drawing attention to the good value (under £100) of divorce advice under legal help. Employment examples were also given.
(7) The local council said bed and breakfast was very expensive in housing cases and concern was expressed over people having no help, they would miss tight deadlines rendering any action impossible. An example of £5000 being incurred by the council in a homeless case.
(8) Early intervention was key.
(9) Mental health was particularly highlighted and protecting the most vulnerable in a fragile economy was seen as key.
(10) The wider cost savings of reduced stress and drain on the NHS needed to be considered.
(11) Alternatives were explored. The money needed to be found and could come from implementing the ideas put forward by the Law Society or as an increase on Council Tax or in DWP cases on a 'polluter pays' basis where they meet legal aid costs if they lose a case.
(12) Clinical negligence was also highlighted.
(13) Cut backs in social welfare were seen as not 'community minded'.
(14) No real ideas came to the fore in terms of alternative funding solutions from private providers.
(15) There was concern over the rising cost of bankruptcy (now around £700) and who would process Debt Relief orders if specialist debt advice goes.
(16) This was completely the wrong time to think about withdrawing legal aid.
Our MP Sarah Wollaston arrives
Our local MP Dr Sarah Wollaston attended at 1.15 and listened in to some of the discussion.
Sarah then gave a short speech and spoke well of the important relationship she had forged with South Hams CAB before taking on a question and answer session with the audience. It wouldn't be right for me to highlight them, other than to say there was a very productive discussion which culminated in Sarah agreeing to take items forward to Prime Minister's Questions if we could provide points succintly. She couldn't promise anything and told the meeting how difficult it can be to get a question in the house.
Sarah has also agreed to participate in a Devon meeting with other County MP's when we can get everyone in one place. Providers are still due to meet on the 17th June in Exeter to discuss their approach.
Baroness Judith Jolly has agreed to chair the Devon MP event when it can be convened.
Just before closing the meeting, I took a calculated gamble. With around 25 in the room (not everyone could stay all day) I asked a question...
"Having listened to everything today, could you please raise your hand if you think government needs to think again on these reforms to legal aid?"
The response was overwhelming, I laughingly joked to Sarah 'I think the Ayes have it', - inwardly, I sighed with relief that so many hands went up!
The meeting was closed with a warm round of applause and thanks
Before leaving I ran back through the presentation with our MP and ensured she took away all relevant points, I also agreed to forward her a copy of the write up to the event.
We would particularly like to express our sincere gratitude to Dr Sarah Wollaston MP for engaging with us and attending the event, she has always shown herself to be very keen to listen and work with us for the good of the community.
We didn't get everyone's name but the front desk reckoned they'd counted around 40 people attending, I've got 36 listed - so it was a good attendance; especially for a very hot sunny Friday afternoon.[/b]
And so the meeting came to a close, it was then a question of lugging everything back across the courtyard before going to pick up the car. I left feeling the day had gone very well indeed, the turnout was very encouraging and it was heartening to realise that at least out of all of this there seemed to emerge a strong sense of community spirit.
I went home hungry, thirsty, worn out, but pleased. As I drove home I chuckled at the parking ticket now crumpled up in the ashtray and strangely it didn't bother me, indeed it made me smile. I'm sure I'll feel different when I come to pay it, luckily I can afford to as I'm working. But for how much longer I wonder......
My huge thanks to all those who attended, I am very grateful to you all.
Excellent work Nick and a fantastic amount of effort put in there. This is what we need across the country. By the way why not send your post to Justice for All and Sound off as an example of what can be done.
Post by nickd (Mylegal) on Jun 5, 2011 21:45:50 GMT
Thanks Jman, I may just do this. It's great to see the efforts of everyone who got involved with this; - I've been very impressed by the efforts made elsewhere. This is a battle logic says we can win and if we can get this out in the public eye we are in with a good shout. It's definitely the key areas of social welfare law which are the strongest case.
I'm wondering what tomorrow's case load will bring. Thanks for your support Jman;- much appreciated.