After the council withdrew his housing benefit, Ian's life went into meltdown. Ian has blogged about his experience of battling legal issues without the help of legal aid, to raise awareness of the wide-reaching consequences.
For seven years leading up to August 2016, I received Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because my PTSD meant that I was unable to work. But that August, I began to do some work for my wife’s business. Even though it was unlikely to make any real difference to increasing our income, it was a good opportunity for me to do something positive for my mental health, and something I felt well enough to do. As I was then working I started receiving Working Tax Credits instead of ESA, which I was expecting.
The local council also stopped our Housing Benefit
However, the local council also stopped our Housing Benefit immediately, even though our low income meant we were financially eligible and we relied upon it to make ends meet. They asked me for a lot of information about the business and about our finances, and I gave them as much as I possibly could. But they decided what I had provided wasn’t enough and continued to ask for more information – some of it we didn’t have and some of it we could not provide because it was an invasion of clients’ privacy. As a result the council refused to reinstate the benefit.
This left my family over £1000 per month below the breadline. My family’s income was halved and we had to borrow money from family and friends to get by. My two young children missed their birthdays and went without Christmas.
Changes to legal aid criteria mean there is no support for benefits issues
I started an appeal against the council’s decision and it took 13 months to even get to a hearing. I couldn’t get any financial help to contribute to the cost of finding a lawyer because changes to legal aid criteria mean there is no support for benefits issues. As my wife and I couldn’t afford a lawyer ourselves we were left completely on our own and I ended up having to represent myself at the hearing.
What is legal aid?
Legal aid is financial help which covers the costs of legal advice and representation for people who can’t afford to pay for it themselves. But in 2012 the Government dramatically cut the availability of legal aid, leaving many common legal problems no longer covered.
Our research at Mind has revealed how many people with mental health problems have been negatively affected by these changes. We’re calling on the Government to acknowledge this impact and to make sure that people with mental health problems can access the legal help they need, when they need it.
The stress was incredible, trying to live below the breadline and fight a case without legal advice or representation. My family literally went into meltdown. I was driven out of my own home by the disruption and I ended up spending time in our horrible local homeless shelter as a result.
The stress of it all caused my own mental health to fall to a desperate level
The stress of it all caused my own mental health to fall to a desperate level. In the end I had a breakdown the night before the hearing, I became catatonic and I did not know how I could manage to go. Fortunately a family friend came and got me up, drove me to the hearing and supported me, but I still shook from head to toe throughout the process.
Even though I was relatively lucky at the hearing in that the judge was quite understanding, having to represent myself and being up against a trained professional on the other side was intimidating. I was at a huge disadvantage and the respondent took maximum advantage of the situation, repeatedly harassing me and being discriminatory in regard to my condition.
In the end, I did win my case. The judge described the council's actions as illegal and unreasonable and said that I had done everything right. We were back paid nearly £15,000 for the months we had not received housing benefit.
This was a huge relief but doesn’t get rid of the fact that for over a year, we had no money to pay for anything. It really was a miracle that we survived, both financially and emotionally.
Tell us about your experiences of the changes to legal aid.