Beyond the current Ministry of Justice/Reform UK 'think tank' consultation on their 'future is digital' vision for the bald mechanics of justice admin
"May I suggest a social theology .... rooted in the experience of the poorest UK citizens."
— Revd Paul Nicolson, founder of Taxpayers Against Poverty (1)
".... the periscope allows the commander of the submarine only limited vision. The periscope will show you only what you look at; if you don't look at something, you won't see it. And the same is true of questions: one only gets what one asks for. If you don't ask for something, you won't get it."
"Questions put [the questioner] in command"
I am deeply concerned at the setting of the agenda and slanting of questions in the Ministry of Justice consultation Transforming Our Justice System that was launched on 15 September and is deadlined for Thursday 27 October.(4) I believe that the inception of the consultation owes more to the impact of bad laws on enforcement logistics while the crimes of government against poor people are treated as 'business as usual' or rather, completely overlooked.
Justice areas looked at in the consultation are: Criminal; Civil; Family and Tribunals. While I shall not address the matter of the proposals for Criminal, Civil, and Family divisions of the courts and tribunals system specifically, what I call the crimes of government against poor people appear to impact upon those sections, in my view.
Bad laws lead to the non-cooperation of fair minded adjudicators and create greater backlogs
In September 2016, the Independent newspaper reported:
More than 50 magistrates are understood to have resigned from the bench in recent weeks amid an extraordinary judicial revolt against new court charges which critics claim encourage innocent people to plead guilty.
Such resignations might reduce the number of appelants, but what does it do for the fitness of our courts to handle caseloads? “All criminal cases will start in the magistrates' court.”(6)
Benefit reductions, stresses of poverty and badly financed public services including IAG [information, advice and guidance] meltdown drive more people into civil debt
After UK central government reduced the amount available to local councils for the Council Tax Reduction Scheme, most councils responded as Brent Council did by charging people too poor to pay any tax with an element of council tax, leading to huge arrears, as reported in the Brent & Kilburn Times in 2014:
Brent Council have come under-fire for issuing court summons over council tax arrears which has left 2,000 vulnerable residents footing a hefty bill of more than £250,000... (7)
More recently, finding it uneconomical to enforce the unenforceable, Camden Council has belatedly launched a consultation offering 100% Council Tax Reduction for those too poor to pay Council Tax as its preferred option.(8) (9)
Alongside 'making poor people pay' being the reality of Conservative Government 'making work pay' welfare reform or anihilation policy, there has been the closure of Citizens Advice Bureau outlets from the time of the 2010 Con-Dem coalition government.(10) As Kate Belgrave has reported, "It can be really hard to get welfare advice."(11) None the less, regarding what people seek advice about, Citizens Advice reported in July 2016 that the number of people seeking advice about Council Tax arrears had risen by over a third in three years and
"In 2015 our network of local offices advised 212,000 people on their council tax arrears. Amounts owed can range from as low as £30 to several thousands of pounds."— Citizens Advice report Catching Up: Improving council tax arrears collection(12)
Benefit cuts and 'transforming benefit tribunals'
Finally, I come the matter of proposed 'transformation of benefit tribunals' as outlined in Panel composition in tribunals. This has been correctly flagged up by Benefits and Work Publishing (BWP) as addressing the wrong issues and making it far more likely that injustices will be done to poor people. "Shaming appeal success rates" are an embarrassment to government, BWP argued in a news item Virtual abolition of PIP, DLA and ESA tribunals as we know them.(14) Of course, those 'shaming appeal success rates' indicate that injustices have been committed that tribunals need to redress. As a 'Benefits appeal panel member' put it:
Frances Ryan in a Guardian article, Will disability benefits appeals become less fair? on the MoJ's proposals regarding tribunal panels reports on the proposal that decisions should be made more 'on the papers' to reduce the number of appeals panels:(16)
Although the MoJ states it does not collect data on the outcomes of different types of hearing, research by the University College London Judicial Institute and the Nuffield Foundation in 2013 found claimants almost three times as likely to win an appeal for disability living allowance (DLA) after an oral hearing than paper alone (46%, compared to 17%).(17)....Steve Donnison, co-founder of Benefits and Work,(18) a not-for-profit benefits advice resource, explains: “Appeal panels have to make a decision about the honesty and credibility of an appellant. It’s far easier for them to make this judgment if the claimant is in front of them answering their questions.”
This disadvantage is exacerbated by the fact, which advocates stress, that many claimants appealing a decision aren’t actually aware of the criteria for being eligible for benefits. “And when the appeal is by paper, the tribunal has no way of filling in the gaps in the evidence,” Donnison adds. “So they can’t make an award.”
Government crimes against poor disabled benefit claimants as "business as usual"
I commend my reader to further study of the Frances Ryan article should they wish.(Reference#: 12 It's already been published there.) Here, though, I shall refer to other stresses and strains upon poor benefit claimants that further a plot designed to privatise the welfare state. (That plot and its key instigators have been well documented by former health care worker Mo Stewart in her book Cash — Not Care, as it addresses the "corporate demolition of the welfare state."(19))
A major stressor on disability benefit claimants has become the frequency of testing claimants. As a survivor of that system myself, I can honestly say that being called to re-assessment six months after completion of the previous testing regime made me ill in addition to my having a disability from birth. And I have been by no means the only person to experience such trauma. That retesting amounts to a form of psychological and financial torture. On the one hand there is the sense of being accused of making a fraudulent claim, and on the other there is the risk of having one's benefits reduced considerably while being subjected to worse 'conditionality' as a result.
Yet a further mechanism by which the DWP can be aiming to make tribunal success less likely is to discourage appealing. It is much harder to get into the ESA (Support Group) than the ESA (Work Related Activity Group). Thus if a person has been awarded 0 eligibility points at their 'Work Capability Assessment' inferring that they are 'fit for work', they might be inclined to appeal, however stressful appealing might be. But if appealing is very stressful and the prospective appelant cannot bear the prospect of going through the appeals process after the trauma of delays caused by Mandatory Reconsideration, they might think, "What's the use? The best I could get would be Work Related Activity Group status, which now comes with a £30 per week reduction from the old rate for new claimants."(20)
The DWP says that the £30 a week reduction in ESA (WRAG) rate for new claimants is to 'incentivise' the claimant to find work. That is rubbish. Disabled people are disadvantaged by physical, economic and social barriers and that cut can make a stressful situation even more stressful. The Jobseekers Allowance rate that that £30 a week cut amounts to is also bad for provision of health, bringing worries of how the person will make it to the end of the week or month while also being obligated to pay an element of Council Tax.
A few years ago though, I was privy to a father's evidence to an ESA review. The father's son had a severe learning disability and was awarded 0 eligibility points out of the threshold of 15. The tribunal panel raised that number of points to 48 and placed the appelant in the ESA (Support Group)!
There is also the threat of benefit sanctions that comes with ESA (WRAG) status. One of the fundamental issues regarding the issuing of benefit sanctions is that the decision maker never sees the target of the sanction as a person; the decision is made 'on paper' rather than habeus corpus. Glasgow University Law Professor rightyly regards this as Britain's secret penal system.
My closing questions
- If torture is contrary to international law, what about the psychologic tortures inflicted by the DWP in the name of 'welfare reform' and the tortures imposed by local councils in the way they force people to pay unpayable Council Tax?
- Should not the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) repeal the unjust laws that have led magistrates to resign in their droves?
- Should not the MoJ compel the DWP to adopt rule 43 from benefit suicides courts that Iain Duncan Smith treated with contempt?(21)
- Is not the agenda for the MoJ consultation too much driven by digital companies and privatisation? Compare the content of these reviews with the keyword search 'magistrates' on the website of 'think tank' ReformUK. http://www.reform.uk/?s=magistrates
- Is not it high time that disabled people ourselves were consulted in the drafting of government consultations?
By Dude Swheatie of Kwug
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