How public legal education can help bring about legal change for benefit claimants
"Hats off Law for Life!
You made it happen, exposed the issue, made the call out and collated really strong evidence. Not bad for an organisation fairly new to system change litigation! Without you that practice would still be in operation."
Sara Lomri, Deputy Legal Director, Public Law Project
Back in 2017 Law for Life staff noticed an unusual trend. We had started to hear from users of our PIP appeal guide that they had been contacted by phone by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and offered lower disability benefit awards than they thought they were entitled to, if they dropped their appeal. Most felt under pressure to accept the lower rate. The DWP did not explain people’s rights to them properly.
Gathering more evidence
We needed more evidence of what was happening so we encouraged Advicenow site users to tell us about their experiences of being contacted by the DWP with a ‘decide now’ offer, began media work to publicise the issues, and connected with other charities whose beneficiaries were also experiencing DWP ‘cold calls’. We also discussed the possibility of strategic litigation with the always brilliant Public Law Project.
By 2020 we had heard from 57 claimants. Frances Ryan covered the story in The Guardian. In response to that coverage, the DWP slightly improved its guidance. But we were still hearing from claimants who were being made ‘offers’ that were less than they believed they were entitled to, put under pressure, not told of their appeal rights, and contacted directly rather than through their representatives.
Like many other disabled claimants we had heard from, an Advicenow site user (known as ‘K’), had complied with the DWP’s drawn out, complicated and stressful processes to claim and then appeal the benefit she was entitled to. After receiving a call from the DWP ‘out of the blue’ she felt pressured into accepting a lower rate of benefit than she thought she was entitled to. She wasn’t allowed time to call her mum or get advice. Afterwards, ‘K’ struggled to cope and felt suicidal.
‘K’ read the information about this practice on Advicenow and got in touch to tell us what had happened. ‘K’ was happy for us to put her in touch with Public Law Project after realising that the same thing was happening to other disabled benefit claimants. ‘K’ became a client of Public Law Project and bravely made a legal claim to challenge the DWP’s practice of pressurising disabled claimants into accepting ‘cold call’ offers. The case also used the evidence we had collected from 201 claimants and 62 advisers in all. This evidence was crucial in refuting the DWP assertion that the problem had been solved by its changes to the guidance. You can read more about ‘K’ and the legal case on Public Law Project’s website.
DWP backs down
We were happy and relieved when in July of this year the DWP agreed to change its practice of pressuring disabled benefits claimants into accepting less than they are legally entitled to as a result of ‘K’s legal challenge. It was a huge win for ‘K’ and ensures that future claimants will not find themselves being pressured to accept 'take it or leave it' benefit offers.
We are very proud of our role in the case. It demonstrates that when people are given information on their rights (in this case our PIP appeal guide) they can recognise when they are not receiving them. Recognising and framing the legal dimension of an issue or situation is the first key component of legal capability - what someone needs to know or do to deal effectively with law related issues. The last key component of legal capability is engaging and influencing to achieve change. ‘K’ has certainly done that, and we could not be more delighted.
Our CEO, Lisa Wintersteiger:
"For more than two and a half years we have been gathering evidence of this practice and the impact it had on sometimes very vulnerable claimants, and we could not be more pleased to see it end. We continue to raise questions about the many ways in which the DWP do not make the payments that claimants are entitled to by law, and to support people with no or limited access to an adviser to challenge unfair decisions with our self-help tools and guides."