Public Interest Lawyers is an extraordinary firm of solicitors, who must be – certainly should be – the pride of the legal profession. Through their tenacity, quality and sheer hard work – often from unpromising beginnings and in dark times for public funding – they have single-handedly been responsible for shining the torchlight of legal accountability in a range of new areas. The work continues unabated. No barrister or judge, here or in Strasbourg, could have come to deal with the sorts of human rights issues which PIL continues to raise, but for their principled and brave pursuit of justice.

 

PIL demonstrates three further important things. First, how positive and constructive can be the use of public funding in public law cases, in the public interest. It has been hard. But PIL and the LSC have forged a partnership which is second to none, as to the importance of the cases that are brought, their success and their wider impact. Secondly, PIL demonstrates that London does not always lead, and a London-centric focus is neither helpful nor fair. This firm, from what are still sometimes thought of as “the provinces”, is the nation’s leader for human rights application in challenging cases. That PIL is looking, as a Birmingham-based firm. How refreshing for it to be that way.Thirdly, let it not be forgotten that PIL was set up as a new firm of solicitors. This is not the further and continued work of an established firm, set up long ago when times were different. This was an innovation; a leap of faith in the rule of law. It was a boat launched in a sea of uncertainty, which has turned out to be the flagship for public law accountability under the rule of law.

 

Michael Fordham QC
Michael Fordham QC
 
 

Judgment delivered on Government’s “Back to Work” schemes – Stripping of Benefits Unlawful

Today in a mixed judgment, the High Court held that the Regulations[1] under which the Government has created many of its flagship “Back to Work” schemes are lawful but that the decision of the Department of Work and Pensions (the DWP) to strip our client of his benefits for six months for refusing to undertake compulsory work was unlawful.

The case was brought by Cait Reilly who participated in the "sector based work academy" scheme against her wishes and Jamie Wilson who refused to participate in the “Community Action Programme” when he was told that he had to work, cleaning furniture, without pay for 30 hours per week for six months. Mr Wilson objected to carrying out compulsory unpaid labour. In May 2012 Mr Wilson was informed that as a result of his failure to participate in the scheme he was to be stripped of his Jobseeker’s Allowance for six months.

In a decision that has potentially far-reaching consequences the Judge held that the decision to strip our client of his benefits for six months was unlawful because the DWP failed, as required by law, to provide information to him about the consequences of not participating in the scheme. Mr Wilson received the DWP’s standard form letters requiring his attendance on the Community Action Programme. These letters, which have been sent out to thousands of other people mandating their attendance on such schemes, failed to comply with the basic notice requirements that would allow the DWP to lawfully impose benefit sanctions.

Over the last year, across the country, tens of thousands of people have been stripped of their benefits and must now be entitled to reimbursement by the DWP.

Tessa Gregory of Public Interest Lawyers stated:

“As of January 2012, over 22,000 people[2] had been stripped of their benefits for failing to participate in the Work Programme alone. That figure must now have doubled. Today’s decision should mean that many of those subjected to benefit sanctions will be entitled to reimbursement by the Department of Work and Pensions. It is truly extraordinary that the Government has found itself in this position by failing to provide basic information to those affected. 

We welcome the Court’s ruling on this issue but we continue to maintain that the Regulations themselves are unlawful and ought to be quashed. We are seeking  permission to appeal the Court’s findings in this regard.”

 


[1] Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise) Regulations 2011

 
 
See also:
 
 
Judgment


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