Equality before the law: a principle abandoned by Britain

A Citizens Advice Bureau adviser describes how recent 'reforms' to legal aid and cuts to services are impacting on the ground. She has a question: At what point did Britain decide that legal rights don’t apply to poor people? 

Government and local government letters routinely direct people in difficulties to go to their local Citizens Advice Bureau for help. But we can’t see all the people who come to us. At my Bureau, every week we turn away more than we can see: under 200 seen, over 200 not, even when it’s icy. Not enough advisers; not enough time. Our adviceline works hard, but not all can get through.

Many law centres and Bureaux have closed. Being a CAB adviser is an addiction, or a vocation; the thought of closure is gut-wrenching. So is turning people away. We know we are essential.

Without equality before the law, there is no justice. Law is complex and its procedures rigorous. Where one side, whether landlord, employer or government/local government department, knows its way around and the other does not, only a skilled and painstaking judge can tease out half-articulated facts.  Such judges exist; facing a benefits tribunal with an alcohol-dependent claimant, I was deeply impressed by one such. You can be lucky. But justice should not depend on chance.

The hand of justice. Image: Africa Studio

Most problems shouldn’t even come to court. We should be able to sort it out before that. Often, issues just need informed dialogue. Many more can’t be solved in court, for the legal rights aren’t there. Explaining that is part of our job, too.

As a paid specialist, I win some benefits appeals against the odds, often before it goes to Tribunal: there’s such joy when someone receives what they are due. I can advise people when they have no case and explain why. For the person, it saves on months of churning hope and fear; for the public purse, it saves good money. All this takes expertise; it takes time – sometimes just a little time. In the general run of Bureau work, we don’t have enough. If only we had more.

But there is a more insidious destroyer of justice. We know too well the limited effectiveness of the advice we can give. We may be able to tell people what they could in principle do. That’s different from what they can in practice do.

We see people with unpaid wages, who were ‘made redundant’ overnight or dismissed on becoming sick or pregnant. Nothing new in that, nor in below-legal-minimum wages. But the potential for action narrows as money tightens. When people live on the financial viability line, any disruption spells lack of food and/or eviction. Dealing with the emergency is their priority.

Often a story fills me with such fury that I want to fight it to the end. Dismissal following mental-health-related harassment stinks, and there are good bodies committed to taking up discrimination cases. But that person has to want to fight it, through months of strain. Who can help with those day-to-day realities?

We can tell people about their rights under employment law and discrimination law. We can talk through pros and cons; about ACAS guidance, mediation and Employment Tribunals; can point them to free helplines or to the few local legal aid solicitors. But these are just words.

For people on the edge have to think about tomorrow’s money, not yesterday’s. If they’re still in the job, first priority is hanging on to it. Talk to the employer about the grievance? He can just give a week’s notice unless (fat chance) they’ve worked there one (now two) years. Might not even be clear who the employer is, if both agency and work-boss say it’s the other.

And if the job’s gone, there are other priorities: putting in the benefit claims, hunting for a new job, appeasing the landlord, notifying tax credits to avoid an overpayment; none of it simple given telephone waiting times, the cost and slowness of transport, quite likely the lack of broadband. Who’s going to have the time, energy or optimism to persist in an employment claim? Come April, new anxieties about ET fees and witness expenses will be introduced.

People come in with housing problems, not just the threatened evictions for which we have a specialist. Landlord’s refusing to return the rent deposit, having failed (illegally) to put it into a deposit scheme. We tell them about the small claims court, warning them that even if they get a judgment, they’ll still have to get it enforced; in tenuous hope, we tell them of the council’s tenancy support officer whose bottomless job is chasing dodgy landlords.

Or the landlord won’t fix the heating. We tell them about landlord responsibilities, about court action (rarely a good solution) or applying for local authority action (rarely a swift solution). And we warn them that since their initial fixed tenancy is up, the landlord can just give them notice to leave, and they’ll have to go.

Maybe they’d love to go. Who’d want to live in a cold, damp flat (or single room)? But after talking to a local authority housing officer, I’m in no doubt about the desperate shortage of private lets.

People often feel better after coming to the Bureau. They may understand their situation better. Many can take effective action: this isn’t all doom and gloom. They have been listened to with respect. But too many won’t have the resources to fight.

At what point did this democratic country decide that legal rights don’t apply to poor people?

There never was a golden age of justice, but the alloy is becoming baser. In April, it will degrade again. I shall then be one of myriad ex-advisers, as legal aid is cut. Save where discrimination is involved, it will end for debt (apart from eviction cases), benefits, employment, education and clinical negligence, amongst other areas. For family, housing and immigration law it will survive only for violent and emergency situations, contentiously defined.

Part of the rationale is that law and processes are sufficiently simple for people to manage alone. That was the argument on benefits, though Iain Duncan Smith also declares them so over-complex as to be unfit for purpose.

More forthrightly, legal aid is said to cost too much and encourage litigation. Mediation is – often rightly – encouraged as a first step. The costs of unrepresented litigants and of groundless claims are discounted.

But the effective right of appeal is not just an optional gilding on democratic society; it’s part of the fabric. Every day, I and colleagues see rights openly flouted, without realistic redress against employers, landlords and public authorities. People are abused because they are poor and poor because they are abused. Rich people grow richer on the back of that abuse.

Such a system makes democracy unreal.

About the author

Deborah Padfield is a Citizens Advice Bureau supervisor in north Essex. She has previously worked as a CAB adviser in Cambridge and Peterborough, and has lived and worked in the east end of London. She writes in her personal capacity, not as a representative of Citizens Advice.