Audits

I heard of a solicitor in Liverpool who took the old Advice and Assistance forms down the pub, and bought a pint for people who would sign them. He then claimed to have given the basic advice to each, and claimed the fee from the Legal Aid Board.

fat lawyer coining it on Legal Aid

A con, or at least playing the system, which I saw: a firm leafleted an area saying that people may be entitled to state benefits they are not claiming: ask for advice. Anyone who called would see an unqualified person for half an hour, and get a useless seven page letter inaccurately summarising the whole benefits system, and would sign the LAB’s basic advice form, each bringing about ¬£80 or so to the firm.

 

Given that, it was hardly surprising that the LAB’s attitude seemed to be, “we’re going to catch you wasting our money, and we’re going to punish you for it”. My colleague left the CAB and became an LAB auditor. She told me¬†that when her victim answered the door to her, he began visibly shaking.

 

I found the audits pettyfogging and pointless. For example, we were criticised for keeping papers in a fold of cardboard, rather than a proper file which would keep them all in the correct order. What if we dropped a file? Well, we pick it up. We got marked down for that one, and after in another office I had to pull things out of poly pockets before I could read them. Petty, and arguably not an improvement. I also got marked down for not having documentary evidence on a file that I had given my client my name. Of course I have given my client my name. So I drafted a document which recorded all the information we were supposed to take from a client, and told the client all that we were supposed to tell them: and was criticised for not personalising it more. As if you can tell someone that the appeal time limit is one month in more than one way.

Today (in case you have not noticed) I am having a whine.

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Given my personality, I found the pressure of audits terrible. Just before my first in 1995, I was in the office at 7pm sorting files out, and I screamed at the floor. A good way to release pressure, but not necessarily a good way to convince colleagues of ones reliability. My usual way of dealing with emotion was to suppress it.

I feel that now, when I am working on being conscious of my feelings and accepting them, permitting them and not suppressing them, I can go back to old feelings about old situations, and cleanse them, accept them and let them go. And I feel that this is valuable to do: it was as it was, and it was alright, and my discomfort was bearable; and it is all right now. 

Picture by LS Lowry.

Citizens Advice Bureau

I moved to ———— CAB at the height of¬†CAB arrogance and stupidity with regard to the funders.

My post was funded by the Legal Service Commission to challenge decisions on benefits. The LSC was creating a “community legal service” with full coverage across the country. Using our office and others to provide advice by telephone gave them greater flexibility. I was funded to provide the same advice someone would provide face to face, drafting appeals against decisions, obtaining evidence and drafting legal submissions.

Unfortunately, the CAB disagreed. They thought that I should answer any questions about benefits the clients had, but if someone needed a decision challenged they would want to be advised face to face, so I should limit my advice to telling them what services were available locally. This is an arguable position, and I think I would prefer to see an adviser who was doing an appeal for me; though also, arguably, advising over the phone lets the adviser keep to the facts and spend less time on the emotional upset which is not her area of expertise. But I thought funding was safer if we actually did what we were funded to do. So I disobeyed, and took on appeals.

As a result, my work was blocked. Several people phoned¬†having received a letter from the¬†DWP saying¬†that benefit had been overpaid, that¬†they could not¬†recover it¬†under statute so would recover it under common law. The common law case is dubious, and in practice the DWP never attempt it, just writing in the hope the claimant will repay the money voluntarily. For the lucky claimant, doing nothing or writing to the DWP saying “Go away” is equally effectual. So I would take the phone call, and write to the claimant telling them this. I wrote these letters to five clients. Each time I¬†copied the reply I had sent to the previous client, and was told to rewrite it with greater detail. I was told to make two records of each case, one in the third person for our records, one in the second person addressed to the client. I was told not to use common abbreviations, but to type out jargon in full. I became completely demotivated, and lost all trust in my employer.

The result was, of course, that the contract was withdrawn less than five months after it had been awarded. But there were other funding streams, and I was put onto employment work.

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Where an employment tribunal case is undefended, the claimant still has to prove his case in a hearing. We had a hearing fixed, and a week before, the employer sought to have a defence admitted late.

The defence will be admitted late if it is in the interests of justice to do so, and usually it is. It is more important to give the respondent an opportunity to defend the case than to protect the claimant from a trifling delay. However I burrowed into this case, and saw that the young solicitor for the respondent had been infected with the respondent’s desire to make only that smallest exaggeration of the truth, which can be fatal to credibility. She had not checked one fact sufficiently, and I could provide the document to show that her assertion was false. Other facts had been exaggerated. I gave the arguments, and the defence was not admitted. The chairman said, “After hearing Miss ________, I was under the impression that… However, having heard Miss Flourish, I was under a very different impression”. Having found the argument, and expressed it, still delights me, and the claimant got ¬£10,000.

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At the time, an employer in the UK had to go through a particular procedure when dismissing a worker, but two months after my minimum wage client had gone off sick she had a letter dismissing her. So she was entitled to compensation because the procedure had not been followed. I made the claim.

However the defence came back with three letters I had not seen before, which together constituted a defence to the claim. The claimant denied receiving them, and I believed her; but proving to the satisfaction of the tribunal that evidence is forged is difficult. Even dismissed fairly, she would still be entitled to twelve weeks’ pay in lieu of notice, because she had worked for the employer for more than twelve years. Because my client did not want to attend a hearing, I offered to settle for that notice pay.

I received another forgery, a photocopied contract of employment where the date of commencement of employment had been altered to show only eight years’ service, and therefore only entitlement to eight weeks’ notice pay. Fortunately, the client had kept her copy of the contract, with the date of commencement, and signatures, written in pen. I disclosed my clear evidence of forgery to the solicitors for the respondent, and threatened to seek costs if the employer did not pay the full amount of compensation and notice before the hearing.

From pure luck, we caught the swine out. Strange that he would rather perjure himself, and pay a greater sum in lawyers’ fees, than pay his employee her due.

Without the added stress of the employment tribunal claim, the woman could probably have gone back to work much earlier than she did.

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Sandra came to me having been dismissed because she was transsexual.

She had the usual history, trying to make a man of herself by joining the Army. She passed well: the receptionists would not have realised her history, they told me. This dismissal had completely broken her. Once, I timed sitting still and silent, not looking at her, for ten minutes while her anger and distress poured out unassuaged. She had been accused of theft, and had made the claim to the tribunal herself. It was not until the Saturday before the hearing that I properly understood the evidence of discrimination among the pages of notes of investigation and hearings: there was evidence that the theft could not have happened as the witnesses described, which the investigating manager had suppressed. However, so late, I could not get that over to the tribunal in my cross-examination, and they found that any employee would have been dismissed for theft, not just a transsexual person: so there was no discrimination.

I was repeatedly in tears in the office over this. I never achieved proper professional detachment, though I was not empathising with the clients so much as frustrated with my inability to make cases stick to my own satisfaction. Nor did we correctly separate decisions for the claimant to make from decisions that we should make ourselves; bodge, hope, and settle the day before hearing was the model. It worked, much of the time.

Once again, we did not conform to the funders’ requirements, and lost certain funding streams. One funder did not make its decision to renew funding until eighteen days after the last award had expired: I had my redundancy notice, but carried on working from week to week.

Eventually, I could not bear it any longer, and walked out. That was January 2010. Since then I have had one six month temporary contract, and now I do a little voluntary work, and live on savings. I cannot go on like this for ever (though I can for another year, perhaps) and need to know what to do next. The process of job applications: lots of interviews for similar jobs to what I have been doing, then no offer, leaves me feeling dispirited, crushed and rejected. I have not done many recently.