LawWorks has been shortlisted for PILnet’s 2016 European Award for Local Pro Bono Impact for its Welfare Benefits Advocacy project. This project, in partnership with law firms including Kirkland & Ellis International, Clyde & Co, BLP, Norton Rose Fulbright and Sidley Austin, supports solicitors to provide in-depth pro bono assistance and representation at first tier tribunals. Lawyers from member law firms receive bespoke training by recognised expert trainers on the relevant area of law and procedure to develop a secondary specialisation in social security law. These lawyers then support their clients through every stage of their appeal. In the context of UK financial austerity and hugely diminished legal aid and social welfare budgets, the project provides an increasingly relevant service: it addresses the largely unmet need for advocacy at appeal tribunals by providing representation for people who may be highly vulnerable, experiencing poverty, social exclusion and stigma, and who would otherwise face an appeal process unsupported. Throughout the pilot phase, the project has also made it a priority to identify and prevent issues that might create an unfair and hostile environment for both client and lawyer in the tribunal.
Since September 2015, the project has supported 17 individuals with representation for appeals against adverse Employment Support Allowance (ESA) decisions, with – to date –a 100% success rate at appeal tribunal. Currently, a further 7 clients are awaiting appeal hearings. ESA prevents those who, due to physical or mental health, are unfit to work, from suffering a significant loss of income and hardship for the individual and his or her family. LawWorks was able to secure benefits for their clients amounting to a total of over £69,000 a year. The project has also recently been extended to include appeals for Personal Independent Payment (PIP), a social security benefit for people with physical or mental health problems, who may have personal care and/or mobility assistance needs.
In order to continue improving their program and allow for the replication of its methodology elsewhere, LawWorks receives feedback at all stages, through review meetings, group conference calls, and round-table events. Furthermore, LawWorks solicitors commit to providing support and supervision to volunteer lawyers throughout the trial, as many of these lawyers are faced with an area of law they have never previously been exposed to. In the future, LawWorks hopes to extend the project beyond London law firms. LawWorks’ project, part of the firm’s secondary specialisation programme, has a pool of over 100 trained volunteer lawyers across five London law firms. To date, approximately 900 hours have been spent on the project, with around 635 hours provided by pro bono lawyers (including senior partners) and the remainder by LawWorks, in providing training and supporting volunteers with their cases. The project has provided vulnerable individuals with free legal support but also provided lawyers with personal and career development through the unique opportunity of engaging with such individuals. Consequently, it has encouraged participant lawyers to further engage in pro bono work to explore the possibilities of their field.