The government will have to defend two of its back-to-work schemes against accusations they exploit the unemployed as forced labour after a high court judge granted a hearing that could see benefit regulations overturned.
Mr Justice Ouseley granted solicitors from the law firm Public Interest Lawyers a judicial review in the case of 22-year-old Cait Reilly, who says she was made to stack and clean shelves for three weeks in Poundland without pay or face losing all benefits under the government's sector-based work academy (SBWA) scheme.
Reilly's lawyers argue that being compelled to work represents a form of forced labour under the Human Rights Act.
Reilly, a geology graduate, says her situation was made worse by the fact she was already doing unpaid work experience in a museum, and the jobcentre made her cancel this to work in Poundland instead.
In a second case to be heard at the same time in May at the Royal Courts of Justice, a claimant who refused to work for six months unpaid under the government's community action programme will argue that it represented a form of forced labour and an "attack on his dignity".
The middle-aged man, whose name was redacted from court papers passed to the Guardian, has been unemployed for more than two years and was put on to the six-month unpaid placement as a matter of course after the private company attempting to find him a job failed to do so.
The Community Action programme is the newest of five separate back-to-work schemes and is currently being piloted in a number of regions across the country before its expected roll out date some time later this year.
Lawyers acting for the man say he made it very clear to the jobcentre that he was willing to volunteer for his placement, which involved working for an organisation that reclaims furniture, but he did not want to be "coerced" into it "as a matter of principle". The man now faces having his benefits stripped for up to six months.
The Department of Work and Pensions has said that in Reilly's case, the scheme was voluntary and the sanctions applied only if she pulled out after the first week. In court papers, departmental lawyers argue that a sanction of docking benefits did not equate to forcing the unemployed to work.
A DWP spokesperson stressed that the SBWA scheme, which gives the unemployed formal training alongside hands-on experience across a variety of employment fields, has benefited many jobseekers and aided their route back into work.
Since Reilly's lawyers lodged her case at the start of the year, ministers have been forced into a U-turn and made work experience totally voluntary after up to a dozen high street chains pulled out of the schemes.
Two weeks ago, employment minister Chris Grayling said that he would seek to remove all sanctions from the work experience scheme but the status of other programmes defined as voluntary is not yet known.
The government is likely to have a harder time arguing in court that the community action programme is not forced work, as it is a requirement for all those who are very long-term unemployed to take part or face losing their benefits for 26 weeks.
Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, said the government's U-turn would not affect the cases until the government formally revealed details of the changes. "This government scheme is going to be given a full going over in front of a high court judge some time after mid-May," he said.
By Shiv Malik, 18 March 2012 - http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/mar/18/back-to-work-court-hearing?newsfeed=true