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News

Legal Aid: some good news for refugees and asylum seekers

The Justice Minister has accepted arguments by the Law Centre and the Refugee and Asylum Forum that immigration advice and family reunion must be kept within the scope of Legal Aid. More information here.

This is good news as refugees and asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable in our society. Asylum seekers and those who are appealing asylum refusals are not allowed to work and therefore are unable to build up any savings to pay for legal fees.

Glenn Jordan, Director of Law Centre (NI), said:  “We are particularly pleased to hear that the Minister has dropped his proposal to remove legal aid for refugees who seek to be reunited with their families. 

Many refugees are understandably worried about families left back home in dangerous situations or in unsustainable refugee camps, and bringing them to a place of safety is often their first priority.

We know that funding family reunion through the legal aid budget is much cheaper than the additional court cases that would be generated through lack of appropriate legal advice. More importantly, assisting in family reunion is a fundamental social justice issue which can impact positively on the welfare and mental health of often destitute refugees.

The Law Centre and our partners in the Refugee and Asylum Forum have been pressing the Minister on this issue and other concerns regarding the impact of proposed changes to legal aid on some of the most vulnerable groups in society.” 

The Law Centre’s response to the Department of Justice review of Legal Aid can be found here.

Our preferred position is that DoJ does not remove employment, immigration or social security from the scope of civil legal aid.  If DoJ does proceed with proposals to cut legal aid from any of these areas then:

  • DOJ must recognise that advice organisations rely on Green Form to fund interpreters and expert reports. Additional funding will need to be made available;
  • a system for applying for funding on an exceptional basis needs to be devised.
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Work with us: financial control officer

Would you like to work with us?

We are looking for a person with:

  • a relevant accounting technician qualification (or equivalent), and
  • at least three years experience in a finance position including:
    • preparing accounts to trial balance,
    • financial reporting,
    • budgetary control, and
    • operating computerised accounting systems including payroll.

More information here.

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Modern slavery discussed at Belfast Film Festival

Unchosen Films Against Slavery - screening and discussion by Law Centre NI and Belfast-Film Festival 25 April 2015 QFT 

Law Centre (NI) and Belfast Film Festival present:

Unchosen - Three short films on modern slavery

Saturday 25 April 2015, 12pm, Queen’s Film Theatre – FREE EVENT - panel discussion

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Read more: Modern slavery discussed at Belfast Film Festival

   

Law Centre (NI) views on the future of Civil Legal Aid in Northern Ireland

The Law Centre has responded to the Department of Justice consultation on Civil Legal Aid.

Our preferred position is that DoJ does not remove employment, immigration or social security from the scope of civil legal aid.

 If DoJ does proceed with the current proposals then:

  • DOJ must recognise that advice organisations rely on Green Form to fund interpreters and expert reports. Additional funding will need to be available;
  • a system for applying for funding on an exceptional basis needs to be devised.

Our full response can be found here.

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New rules on access to healthcare for migrants in Northern Ireland

As of 3 March 2015, new regulations on access to health care for migrants are in place in Northern Ireland. The Provision of Health Services to Persons not Ordinarily Resident Regulations 2015 came into force in February 2015 although there was a short window when they could be challenged. No objections were made and so we are pleased to report that the regulations are here to stay.

 

What the changes are

The regulations ensure that all asylum seekers, and other specified migrant groups, have access to free healthcare while they are living in Northern Ireland. The regulations also provide much welcomed clarity with regards to migrants' access to primary care more generally. We are delighted with the result.

For a summary of the new regulations, please see here:

http://www.lawcentreni.org/Publications/Policy-Briefings/New-NI-Regulations-healthcare-for-migrants-SUMMARY-March-15.pdf

 

The role of voluntary organisations

These new regulations are the culmination of two years of lobbying and engagement and we are pleased that the Health Committee and departmental officials listened to us during this process. The Law Centre took forward this work in partnership with the Red Cross and NI Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers and we also received support from a wide number of other organisations, to whom we are very grateful. 

These include: African and Caribbean Community Support Organisation, Belfast City Mission, Belfast Migrant Centre, British Medical Association Northern Ireland, Bryson Intercultural, Children’s Law Centre, Chinese Welfare Association, Falls Women’s Centre, Horn of Africa People’s Aid, Homeplus, Lower Ormeau Residents Action Group, NICEM, Royal College of General Practitioners and Women’s Aid. The issue also attracted support from statutory human rights bodies the Commissioner for Children and Young People, NI Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission. 

 

What's happening next

We will be working with partners to host a celebratory event and to ensure that all stakeholders are aware of the changes - watch this space for more information. The Department is also due to issue new guidance and we have offered to be involved in this process.

 

In the meantime, any asylum seeker or migrant wishing to know how this change in the law affects them can contact the Law Centre's Community Care Legal Advice Line: 028 9024 4401, Monday to Friday, 9.30 to 1pm.

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Community Care and Mental Health Practitioner Meetings - March 2015

These meetings will be of interest to advisers dealing with mental capacity or community care issues, health and social care practitioners.

To find out more, click on the links below:

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Parliamentary enquiry says immigration detention system needs fundamental reform

For far too long, the UK has unquestionably pursued its policies of immigration detention despite the immense human cost it brings. Today, however, a report issued following a Westminster inquiry brings us hope that something will change.

See the report here: The Report of the Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom - A Joint Inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees & the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration

The inquiry’s panel was cross party  and consisted of members from both houses. The resulting report condemns the UK’s use of immigration detention and calls for radical and immediate change:

Crucially, this panel believes that little will change by tinkering with the pastoral care or improving the facilities. We believe the problems that beset our immigration detention estate occur quite simply because we detain far too many people unnecessarily and for far too long.

The report makes a number of key recommendations including a 28 day time limit on the length of time anyone can be held in immigration detention. Lay readers will perhaps be surprised – and dismayed– to know that immigration detention has no upper time limit in the UK. This was the very point the Law Centre made in our contribution to the inquiry back in Autumn 2014:

The UK stands apart in Europe for its policies on immigration detention: it is unique in that it does not limit the maximum period of detention. Additionally, the UK does not provide automatic judicial scrutiny of detention: the onus is on the individual to apply to a tribunal to have the legality of their detention reviewed. We find the UK’s stance extraordinary and unjustifiable.

See our full response here: Law Centre (NI) response to Parliamentary Enquiry into Immigration Detention. 

The inquiry’s finding is clear: the current system is ‘expensive, ineffective and unjust’. We hope that the government is listening and that it draws a line under the current inhumane practices. 

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NI NGOs and Stormont paved the way for guardianship system for trafficked children in England and Wales

Following in the footsteps of Stormont, England and Wales are set to put in place a protection system for children who have been trafficked. The House of Lords has voted in favour of amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill to secure Child Trafficking Advocates with legal powers to effectively advocate for trafficked children and young people.

A similar but more far-reaching measure was included in Clause 22 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) which received Royal Assent in January. The Clause ensures that all separated children subject to immigration control are protected by legal guardians, thereby ensuring that children who may not be initially identified as victims of trafficking do not fall through the net.

The Law Centre had worked closely with the Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner, ECPAT UK and other organisations involved in combatting trafficking to convince Stormont to include the amendment in the Northern Ireland legislation.

More information

Read more about the guardianship measures in Northern Ireland:

www.lawcentreni.org/news/recent-news/1-news/1156-human-trafficking-bill-secures-guardianship-for-trafficked-and-separated-children.html

http://www.ecpat.org.uk/media/northern-ireland-pioneers-legal-guardianship-trafficked-children

Read more about the proposed measures in England and Wales:

www.ecpat.org.uk/media/historic-campaign-win-secures-extra-support-trafficked-children

Read more on the Law Centre’s views on protecting trafficked and other separated children:

www.lawcentreni.org/Publications/Policy-Briefings/Separated-children.pdf

www.lawcentreni.org/Publications/Policy-Responses/Extending-Gaurdianship-Separated-Children.pdf

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Advice agencies welcome Mervyn Storey engaging with the sector on welfare reform

Northern Ireland Advice Services Consortium welcomes DSD Minister Storey’s commitment to engage on funding discussions with the voluntary advice sector during the implementation phase of welfare reform.

The Northern Ireland Advice Services Consortium, which comprises Law Centre (NI), Advice NI and Citizens Advice, has welcomed the Minister for Social Development’s statement in the Assembly during Further Consideration stage of the Welfare Reform Bill, to give ‘serious consideration’ to providing additional funding to the advice sector to help it prepare for the challenges and demand that will flow from the introduction of welfare reform in Northern Ireland.

Speaking on behalf of the Consortium, Bob Stronge, CEO of Advice NI, said:

“We were obviously disappointed that the Minister did not embrace the concept of a right to independent advice and assistance within the Bill as we feel this would have provided more protection to those people and families who may be impacted during the implementation phase of Welfare Reform. Nevertheless we are pleased that the Minister has introduced an amendment to ensure that advice and assistance are made available to persons making a claim resultant from Welfare Reform.

“We welcome the Minister’s support for the advice sector and the fact that he clearly values the work we do in supporting vulnerable people across Northern Ireland. We know that welfare changes will create uncertainty for many people in receipt of benefits and we are committed to helping them to understand how the new changes will affect them and also in supporting them to challenge unfair decisions. As an independent advice sector, that is what we are set up to do.”

The Bill completed Further Consideration stage on Tuesday 24th February; the next stage will be Final Stage, with Royal Assent expected in May 2015. During this period the Department for Social Development will also develop detailed proposals on payments to persons suffering financial disadvantage and how these schemes could provide support for those adversely impacted by the changes to the welfare system.

Commenting on the welfare reform changes, Pól Callaghan from Citizens Advice continued:

“We welcome the commitment to introduce a package of measures to help people who will lose out as a result of welfare reform and are keen to hear more about the detail of these. Just as government and its agencies will need to prepare for these measures, the advice networks need to prepare to help our clients. Our sector is already under pressure with increased workloads due to changes that have already occurred.  We have already seen huge increases in demand as a result of earlier changes to sickness and disability benefits as well as demand for tribunal representation. We need to increase frontline capacity to cope with the surge in demand that we anticipate.  We also need to provide training for advisers on the new benefits and on the mitigating measures; update our information systems; and improve our digital delivery systems and financial capability capacity.”

Law Centre (NI) Director Glenn Jordan concluded:

“We hope that the Minister will be able to use the Final Stage to strengthen his Department’s commitment to independent advice and to secure all possible mitigations that are in his power to deliver.”

Further information on the Welfare Reform Bill and the debates can be found on the NI Assembly website.

More about the Consortium partners:

Advice NI: http://www.adviceni.net/

Citizens Advice: http://www.citizensadvice.co.uk/pages/about_us/

Law Centre (NI): http://www.lawcentreni.org/about-us/what-we-do.html

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Social Security Practitioner meetings

SS Practitioner meeting

Below are the provisional dates for Social Security Practitioner meetings at Law Centre (NI) this year.

Belfast Office

13 March 2015

3 June 2015

3 September 2015

2 December 2015

 

Derry Office

March date to be arranged

10 June 2015

9  September 2015

9 December 2015

Further information, such as times, agenda etc will be published closer to the date of the meeting. Please see our Events page for these details.

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Comic Relief recognition for anti-trafficking project

Comic Relief Plaque

The Law Centre's Anti-Trafficking Young People Project has received a Comic Relief 'Red Plaque' in recognition of our partnership work in protecting child victims of human trafficking.

The first of its kind in Northern Ireland, the Anti-Trafficking Young People Project allows the Law Centre to work to ensure that every young person who is a victim of trafficking in Northern Ireland receives the guidance and assistance he or she needs, through its legal advice and representation service. The project is funded by Comic Relief.


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Universal Credit - one day courses for advisers

As welfare reform makes its way through the Assembly, advisers will want to be ready for the introduction of new benefits.

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Read more: Universal Credit - one day courses for advisers

   

NIASC and NICVA suggest welfare reform mitigations

The Northern Ireland Advice Services Consortium (Law Centre (NI), Advice NI and Citizens Advice) and Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action welcome the work currently being done in the Assembly to progress the issue of welfare reform.

Welfare reform will bring the biggest change to our welfare system in 60 years. It will bring positive changes for some, but it also has the potential for serious negative consequences on vulnerable benefit claimants, as claimants and decision-makers move to an entirely new system.

The Consortium and NICVA have put together a briefing explaining our joint position on welfare reform. The briefing, Welfare Reform in Northern Ireland, makes suggestions in two key areas: sanctions and independent advice.

Read it here: Welfare Reform for Northern Ireland

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Social justice lecture: why fight poverty POSTPONED

Law Centre NI social justice lecture invite graphic

This event has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances and will be rescheduled.

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Read more: Social justice lecture: why fight poverty POSTPONED

   

Transferring ESA claims when moving to another EU country

Important legal success for people entitled to Employment and Support Allowance moving to another EU jurisdiction – of particular interest to advisers who work near the border with the Republic of Ireland.

Law Centre (NI) helped Ms Robinson, a lady who, because she had moved to Spain, was having problems with continuing to receive Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) due to complex issues of jurisdiction.  The Law Centre managed to secure back-payments of £9,000 and have her placed in the Support Group of ESA so that she can continue to receive her much needed benefit even after welfare reform is introduced.

This important result could help many people on ESA who move to other EU jurisdictions, including the Republic of Ireland. 

Patricia Carty, social security adviser at Law Centre (NI), said: “We would particularly like to alert advisers operating close to the border.  A number of our clients were people who had moved for instance to Donegal and had had appeals listed in England and claims determined under GB rules.  The rules applied to claims and appeals when a person exports ESA within the EU can make a crucial difference to their entitlement. Advisers with similar cases are encouraged to contact the Law Centre's advice line.” 

Ms Robinson added: “I cannot praise the team in the Law Centre enough. They worked tirelessly on my behalf, and their dedication and encouragement helped me to continue with my case and not give up.”

Ms Robinson’s case

Ms Robinson was awarded Invalidity Benefit due to long term disability in the 1990s. She moved to Spain with her husband a few years later and continued to receive her contributions-based Incapacity Benefit, under EU rules allowing the export of social security benefits. 

As part of the migration from Incapacity Benefit to ESA, she was assessed in Spain by a Departmental approved doctor and placed in the work related activity group. She appealed as she thought she should be in the support group.  In 2012 her ESA stopped because the claim was being dealt with in Great Britain and, under welfare reform rules, contributions-based ESA stopped after 365 days. 

Law Centre (NI) represented her in the appeal and succeeded in establishing that, because the original decision was made in Northern Ireland, the claim should be dealt with under Northern Ireland legislation and the appeal heard in Northern Ireland.  As the Welfare Reform Bill had not been passed in Northern Ireland, her award was not time limited. She received arrears of around £9,000 and her benefit was reinstated.

The Law Centre adviser then succeeded in persuading the Department to revise the original decision and to place Ms Robinson in the support group without the need for a hearing.  This means that her ESA will not be time limited when the Welfare Reform Bill is passed here.

Implications for advisers

The issue of what rules apply to claims and appeals when a person exports ESA within the EU has arisen on an ongoing basis. Although Incapacity Benefit has been discontinued, advisers may still be dealing with Incapacity Benefit appeals where this would also apply.

ESA has never been included to date in reciprocal arrangements for social security between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.  Law Centre (NI) has had previous important test cases to challenge the financial loss suffered by its clients on moving within the UK and these led to the establishment of an extra statutory scheme. The Law Centre also had assurances that when welfare reform goes through, ESA will be included in reciprocal arrangements.

Advisers encountering similar cases can contact the Law Centre’s advice line on: 028 9024 4401 or 028 7126 2433, Monday to Friday 9.30am to 1pm.

 

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£2,000 damages over disabled access problems at Work Capability Assessment centre

ALERTING ADVISERS: People who had to travel to alternative assessment centres in the last six months due to lack of disabled access at Royston House can take an action for damages for breach of the Disability Discrimination Act in the county court. Strict six-month time limit for lodging applications.

Atos has agreed to pay £2,000 in damages for Mr McCann, a Law Centre client with mobility problems who had to travel to an alternative WCA assessment centre due to disabled access problems at Royston House, Belfast.  This test case was taken to challenge an issue affecting many people with disabilities.

Mr McCann had not been able to gain access to Royston House in Belfast where the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is carried out, because of disabled access problems. The Law Centre represented him in his claim for damages. Mr McCann was not alone in his predicament. According to figures released last year, over 1,600 claimants had to travel to alternative assessment centres based in Ballymena and Portadown in 2012-2013.

Law Centre (NI) Director Glenn Jordan said: “We are delighted to have brought this case to a successful settlement. This is good news for Mr McCann and for all those who will not have to travel long distances for their WCA assessment.  It’s an example of how the Law Centre is able to pursue strategic cases that make a positive difference for the most vulnerable in our society.”

From 14 November, people with mobility issues are offered assessment in ground floor premises in Belfast. Patricia Carty, the Law Centre social security adviser who took on this case, said: “Other people affected in the last six months may now apply for compensation under the Disability Discrimination Act. However, they need to be aware that there is a strict six-month limit for appeal applications. We would encourage advisers encountering similar issues to contact our advice line.”

Details of the case

WCA assessments are usually carried out on the fourth floor of Royston House. People who would require help in the event of the lift breaking down in an emergency had to be sent to the alternative centres where assessments are carried out in ground floor offices. A large proportion of ESA claimants have mobility issues and many are wheelchair users. This raises issues of disability discrimination due to the extra stress caused by travel which non-wheelchair users do not have to undertake.

The assessments are carried out by Atos under contract from the Department for Social Development, and the Department had to pay £35,000 in taxi fares to the alternative centres.  In addition, travel expenses would have been paid out to those who drove themselves.

When the Department and Atos Healthcare could not agree on which agency was responsible, the Law Centre sought an order from the County Court, and Atos then agreed to settle the case.

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Civil service injury award and Incapacity Benefit: alerting advisers

The Law Centre successfully represented a former civil servant who had appealed a decision to reduce her Incapacity Benefit because the Social Security Agency had said her civil service injury award was equivalent to a pension and therefore affected her entitlement.

This lady had to retire due to ill health in 2003. She was awarded Incapacity Benefit and declared receipt of her civil service pension.  Pension income affects entitlement to Incapacity Benefit.  Where pension income is more than £85 per week then Incapacity Benefit is reduced by an amount equal to 50% of the excess over £85.

The issue at the heart of this case was whether the additional and separate payment that she received under the civil service injury award scheme was a pension.  The Department of Finance and Personnel, which is responsible for the scheme, provided evidence that payments under the scheme are not pensions but are discretionary and solely attributable to accident or illness.

An appeal tribunal allowed the appeal and the Department missed the deadline for appealing and had to implement the decision, although they stated that they disagree with the decision.

She has now migrated to Employment and Support Allowance and the Law Centre has a parallel appeal running for ESA.

This issue affects many former civil servants.  Those affected need to lodge appeals and then the appeals will be stayed pending final resolution of the issue.

Advisers encountering similar cases are encouraged to contact the Law Centre’s advice line on: 028 9024 4401 or 028 7126 2433, Monday to Friday 9.30am to 1pm.

This case was referred to the Law Centre by North Belfast Advice Partnership.

Relevant Legislation

Section 30 D (5) and (6) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 and section 1 of the Pensions Schemes (NI) Act 1993

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New crisis fund for migrants

Law Centre (NI) welcomes the decision by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to implement a Crisis Fund for destitute asylum seekers and migrants, launched on 4 February at the office of the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers. We are also very pleased that OFMDFM has appointed the Red Cross to deliver the programme.

The Law Centre had been calling for an OFMDFM crisis fund since 2008, and a pilot project run by the Community Foundation and Red Cross in 2011-12 had been proven to make a real difference to people living in acute poverty. The idea originally came from the experiences of voluntary organisations in dealing with migrant individuals and families who were either struggling to access or not entitled to public services.

Law Centre (NI) Director Glenn Jordan said: “This is a forward-thinking move by OFMDFM and really good news for the Law Centre and our member advice agencies. The Law Centre has had to signpost migrant and refugee families to local charities so they could feed their children while we were helping them with delays in accessing a complex benefit system. We also have first-hand experience of people left destitute when their claim for asylum was refused and they could not be sent back to their own country.  The Law Centre has been advocating for this Fund, which provides help at crucial times of need in people’s lives, and we are delighted with this decision.”

The crisis fund pilot project had distributed £43,000 between 1,200 people between August 2011 and March 2012.  An independent evaluation of the pilot project had demonstrated that small sums at key moments of transition, for example after losing work, reduced working hours or family breakdown, could provide a significant bridge to allow people to get back on their feet.

NOTES

The Law Centre’s initial paper calling for a crisis fund is here:

http://www.lawcentreni.org/policy/policy-briefings/201.html

The Red Cross/ CFNI evaluation of the pilot fund is accessible here along with Junior Minister comments:

http://www.communityfoundationni.org/News/Emergency-Fund-report-launched

OFMDFM first expressed an interest in expanding the fund last February:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-26175391

The fund was also mentioned in a Northern Ireland Assembly debate to mark Refugee Week:

http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/official-report/reports-13-14/16-june-2014/#10

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Changes to residence rules for claiming benefits - updated briefing

We have just updated our popular briefing explaining the timeline of changes to habitual residence and residence requirements for claiming benefits, which affect both migrants and UK nationals.

This was originally published in August 2014 but some aspects of the changes are now better known. Read the updated briefing here: 

Timeline of changes to the habitual residence and right to reside requirements - updated January 2015

This briefing is of particular interest to advisers and organisations working with migrants, or with UK residents moving back to the UK after a period of residence abroad.

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e-news January 15

Law Centre (NI) Director Glenn Jordan

With:

  • a message from Glenn Jordan, our new Director
  • social justice lecture invitation: Why Fight Poverty? with Julia Unwin, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • new courses
  • resettlement of nursing home residents
  • guardianship for trafficked and separated children
  • casework summaries.

Read it here: Law Centre (NI) e Newsletter, January 2015

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