NEW! Greater Manchester Strategic Casework Group. Now LIVE!

gm-strategic-casework-group-logo-19-december-2016

Please note that whilst these pages are now live they are very much in embryonic form and will be added to, especially with case examples and templates, as fast as we can.

Access to the templates is currently password protected as they should not be used by claimants browsing the site. If you would like the password then please DM @GMWRAGtweets or email Mike Hughes. There will also be a discussion of the group at the next GMWRAG meeting on Friday the 16th of June 2017 in Stockport and we can provide password details there 🙂

Purpose

The brief purpose of the group is to

  • identify appropriate areas of work for action using the Equality Act 2010 and/or public law principles.
  • share experience, knowledge and practice
  • push for systemic change over repeated wrongs by the DWP
  • take an alternative approach to achieving rapidly revised decisions, policy change and financial recompense by lodging complaints/letters before action and, where appropriate, judicial reviews.
  • support advisers in to take-up this approach through these web pages; training; the provision of template letters, case examples and a toolkit.
  • provide a focus referral mechanism for cases which need to progress beyond a complaint or letter before action.

In public law terms this could be summarised as shifting the focus to the anticipatory duties and responsibilities of DWP et al rather than the responsibilities of claimants.

Membership

Membership of the group is intended to connect activists to welfare rights advisers to barristers and funding for action where needed.

We are a group intending to cross geographical boundaries and those between charitable advice services, community organisations, legal professionals, activists, and local government services.

With this in mind it currently consists of representatives of the Public Law Project, EHRC, and Garden Chambers North. We are looking to ensure that all ten Greater Manchester areas are represented (as well as increase membership from elsewhere) and we currently have advisers and activists from Wigan, Bury, Salford, Manchester, Stockport, Lancashire and Tameside. We will be looking to bring on board advisers from Oldham, Rochdale and Bolton.

Membership of the group remains open to anyone who can contribute to the above described purpose whether in the GM area or not.

We welcome members from other areas so if you’d like to come see what we do; perhaps take away some good practice or ideas to replicate in your own area, or, just come take part in our group, then please do. Equally, if there is something you can contribute to the work of our group, regardless of your geographical location, please get in touch via @GMWRAGTweets or keep an eye out on here for details of our next meeting.

Background

Greater Manchester Strategic Casework Group was launched in October 2016. The impetus for its creation came from the Task Force report on “DWP Benefit Conditionality and Sanctions in Salford – One Year On.”, published in May 2016. You can read the report via our original post with related information on the report going viral. A presentation given to GMWRAG in June 2016 on same can also be seen on the site.

A significant number of observations, conclusions and next actions came from the report. Relevant to this group is the fact that one of the three purposes of the report was to influence Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) policy on welfare to work and, within that purpose, the idea that local social housing providers, clinical commissioning groups, the NHS and GMCA and other relevant commissioners and funders should “explore investment in free, independent, impartial advice services to maintain and build on current welfare rights and debt advice services.”

That suggestion of a need for investment was partly a recognition that current welfare reforms are generating a significant upturn in the need for detailed advice and representation. Along with that comes a recognition that many services are no longer resourced to challenge decisions in the volumes they are coming through the door.

The report recognised the low number of challenges to sanctions decisions despite the success rate of those challenges being very high. It listed amongst its achievements a different approach taken in Salford to challenging those decisions whereby advisers were trained to look at decisions from the perspective of both public law principles and as a potential breach of the Equality Act 2010.

Bearing in mind the above, one of the actions following the report was to establish a Greater Manchester wide group to build on this latter approach. This group is that entity.

Meetings

Meetings are not the main purpose of this group. Action, and changing the way we as advisers take action, is the focus. That said, we have set dates for our first meetings of 2017 and the next one will take place on Wednesday the 7th of June 2017 in Manchester Town Hall, however, we are open to the idea of moving venue as needed.

Initial areas of interest

Whilst sanctions were the driver for the creation of the group, it is apparent this approach has merit in other areas of work. The list below is by no means definitive. If you feel you could add to the list then by all means DM @GMWRAGtweets and let us know.

  • Sanctions, especially those where no notice has been given.
  • Failure to attend caused by a failure to notify.
  • Untailored or unrealistic claimant commitments.
  • Failure to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ under EA 10 for any relevant part of the claim process.
  • Unnecessary face to face assessments caused by a failure to use existing information already available to DWP or their agents.
  • Disregard of the appropriate DWP safeguarding guidance.
  • Failure to use discretion when referring WRAG claimants for the Work Programme.
  • Failure to pass on reasonable conditionality requirements for a claimant to WP providers
  • Failure to provide appropriate means to make claims.
  • Delays.

Once again, this list is not definitive. It is in fact severely abridged.

How does it work in practice?

In practice, we hope to give advisers the tools so that in the future they can pursue these approaches without support from the group. The approach we are advocating is an alternative to endless mandatory reconsiderations and appeals. It is a process which involves lodging complaints and letters before action (usually combined) as a means to rapidly escalating and resolving issues which might otherwise have to proceed to MR and/or appeals. It is a process our members can evidence as having worked. It can produce policy changes which negate the need for endless, repetitive actions on the same issues, and, free up welfare rights advisers time.

Many or most cases will be resolved in full well ahead of the time it would take to do an MR or finally determine an appeal. Our example templates will address those cases. You can find relevant legislation; templates and case studies here.

However, some cases may not be resolved by a letter before action or indeed a formal complaint. You may consider that some cases will need a judicial review. If you’re like us then you may not know which cases those will be. How can you identify a likely judicial review case and why would you want to?

The answers to both parts of this are easier than you may believe. Our legal friends within the group have suggested to us that in order to identify a potential judicial review case you ask yourself two simple questions:

  1. Does the decision seem wrong?
  2. Is the aspect of the case you want to challenge a general problem across the benefit or system or is it confined to just the facts of that specific case? There is a danger in generalising but, usually, the High Court will grant a judicial review when it can find a wider issue.

Why then would you want to bother with a judicial review?

Please have a look at the  Public Law Projects information leaflet 4 “A brief guide to judicial review procedure” and “Judicial Review: A Quick and Easy Guide” from Leigh Day. These cover all of the above and, if you’ve got this far, will give you a bit of variation from staring at this page. Nothing here is intended to be definitive, and we’re certainly not in the business of recommending one document or organisation over another, but we think these are a good place to start. You should especially note the need for a letter before action and the need to move quickly. You will need specialist legal advice around judicial review, so seek that advice as soon as possible.

Any further questions please contact @GMWRAGTweets.

What next?

The group has a plan of action to set us up to work as an efficient route to complaints, compensation, damages or judicial review. This does not mean we can’t look at potential cases until everything else is in place.

Members of the group are well along in

  • devising an initial toolkit. Again, nothing written in stone and we will be welcoming feedback.
  • plotting how we will take the toolkit out to the wider world.
  • ensuring key materials are always available in places such as this section of our web site.
  • ensuring minutes are available on here as soon as practicable.

Please watch this space. There will be a number of updates to this section over the coming weeks.

In the meantime please let us know your tactics and your successes.

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