A barrister representing a 'real life Daniel Blake' has attacked the government's legal aid cuts after her client successfully challenged a decision by the Department for Work and Pensions that he was fit for work.
Mary-Rachel McCabe, of London's Doughty Street Chambers, tweeted that the Social Security Tribunal allowed Tony Rice's appeal 'on the spot'.
McCabe acted pro bono for Rice. She said: 'Tony's words after the hearing were "I shouldn't have had to go through this in the first place". He has had this hanging over his head for 19 months, and it has taken its toll on his mental health. I am obviously delighted for Tony but I am also heartbroken at the state of our "welfare" system.
'What I said in 2017 is still true today. Our benefits system is cruel and inhumane, and it is a disgrace that legal aid is no longer available for people like Tony to have expert representation in these complicated appeals.'
McCabe first highlighted Rice's case in December 2017, describing the 51-year-old as a 'real-life Daniel Blake' following the 2016 film 'I, Daniel Blake', directed by Ken Loach.
Rice was stabbed in an unprovoked attack that left him with a disability, but was later deemed fit for work by the DWP. He was forced to live on £7.98 per day for 212 days after being sanctioned by the department. He faced eviction from his council home but, with the help of McCabe and housing solicitor Simon Mullings, of Edwards Duthie Solicitors, challenged the sanctions placed on his Universal Credit claim.
McCabe recalled: 'Tony was able to use this to pay off a chunk of his rent arrears, and kept a roof over his head (Thanks Simon Mullings for huge amounts of work on this). But, as I explained to the judge in 2017, Tony was not fit for work and so was unable to keep up the 35 hours a week of job-searching that he was required to do in order to get his Universal Credit. The system - by forcing him to prove 35 hours of job-searching per week - had set him up to fail. It was inevitable that he would be sanctioned again, forced to rely on the food bank again.'
Following today's ruling, a DWP spokesperson said: 'Work capability decisions are made following consideration of all the information provided by the claimant, including supporting evidence from their GP or medical specialist. People who disagree with the decision are able to appeal. When decisions are overturned, it is often because more evidence has been submitted by the claimant.'
The Gazette reported in January that legal aid for welfare benefits had plummeted over the past decade. Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy at the Law Centres Network, said benefits were key to the income of many people applying for legal aid, and denying them help with appeals not only obstructed their right to challenge the state, but hampered resolving other problems, such as housing and debt.
McCabe told the Gazette: 'Our welfare benefits system has become increasingly complex, especially since the roll-out of Universal Credit. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 cut welfare benefits from the scope of legal aid, meaning that vulnerable people like Tony are expected to navigate the system alone, or at most with the free advice that Citizens Advice bureaux can provide. This is no substitute for legal representation provided by trained experts.
'The reality is that many people in Tony’s position will give up without a fight, and go without the benefits they are entitled to. I am ashamed to live in a society that treats its poorest and most vulnerable people like this.'