Student volunteers at the Avon and Bristol Law Centre won back £1 million in welfare benefits for people wrongly declared fit for work by the Department for Work and Pensions.
£17 billion in welfare cuts were made by the last government and £12 billion more is due to be slashed over the next 3 years. At the same time, legal aid has been all but eradicated for people who want to challenge changes to their benefit entitlement. In Bristol, law students from the University of the West of England and the University of Law are helping to fill the void of much needed legal advice.
The project has helped over 200 people over the last two years with an average of £5,000 won for each client.
The students have become a familiar sight at Bristol’s Social Security and Child Support Tribunal, where they represent clients at their benefit appeals in front of a judge and doctor. The Project recruits the brightest law students to ensure the best results for clients. All the UWE students on the project who have graduated this year have received First Class degrees.
The students have succeeded in getting 95% of decisions overturned in the claimant’s favour. This compares well with the national average success rate of 59%.
Client Elaine Simmons said “I was so happy with the help I received and I don’t think I would have won without it”. She went on to say how having the support benefited her personally; “you made me feel real again, and like someone who has a place in society”.
Student volunteer Kinga Burzynska added: “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.”
Law Centre Welfare Benefits Adviser Andy King, who supervises the law students, commented: “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”.