Bristol law students win £1m in welfare benefits for clients

Issue date: 15 September 2015

Student volunteers, including UWE Bristol students, at the Avon and Bristol Law Centre have reached £1 million in welfare benefits won for people wrongly declared fit for work by the Department for Work and Pensions.

£17 billion in welfare cuts were made by the last government and £12 billion more is due to be slashed over the next 3 years. At the same time, legal aid has been all but eradicated for people who want to challenge changes to their benefit entitlement. In Bristol, law students from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the University of Law are helping to fill the void of much needed legal advice.

The project has helped over 200 people over the last two years with an average of £5,000 won for each client.

The students have become a familiar sight at Bristol's Social Security and Child Support Tribunal, where they represent clients at their benefit appeals in front of a judge and doctor. The Project recruits the brightest law students to ensure the best results for clients. All the UWE Bristol students on the project who graduated this year have received First Class degrees.

Nicola Ogden is one of the UWE students who worked on the project and gained a First Class Honours in LLB Law.

Nicola says, “The pro-bono work has enabled me to gain valuable practical experience and more importantly has allowed me to help those who really need it. It has improved my legal knowledge and how to apply the law in challenging cases. Making a difference has been extremely rewarding and this whole experience has further enhanced my passion to become a solicitor.

"The UWE course has also been in invaluable. It has taught me how to understand complicated legal language and more importantly how to then interpret this in a more simplified manner. This learning experience was especially important in order to carry out the work surrounding fit for work cases at Avon & Bristol Law Centre.

"LASP has been an exceptional experience in the sense that I not only successfully overturned and won all 7 cases I worked on but thoroughly enjoyed the whole process. Winning these cases have really made a difference to my clients lives and without the help of the students hard work and dedication, these clients would have had a significant disadvantage against the DWP and tribunal on their own.”

The students have succeeded in getting 95% of decisions overturned in the claimant's favour. This compares well with the national average success rate of 59%.

UWE student volunteer Kinga Burzynska added, “The Project has improved my legal knowledge, hands-on legal experience and given me invaluable time with clients. It reminds me of what difficulties people have to go through to get their rights. Making a difference to them is highly rewarding."

Marcus Keppel-Palmer, Senior Law Lecturer at UWE Bristol, explained, “The UWE Law School has a strong tradition of pro bono work, giving students the opportunity to support the local community and to gain practical experience. We are delighted to work with a number of local partners and the link with Avon & Bristol Law Centre over the past three years is one that can be justly celebrated. In times when access to justice is being restricted through cuts in legal aid, it is important that initiatives such as LASP exist to aid the vulnerable in society. The practical experience that students gain in undertaking supervised work like this informs their further academic studies, and I am very proud of the success of these students.”

Head of Department, Steve Dinning, said, “The UWE Law School runs many pro bono initiatives in the local community. As well as working with Avon & Bristol Law Centre, we hold a family law clinic down at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre, we work with local musicians in conjunction with BIMM advising them on music law matters, we work with local schools and voluntary organisations raising awareness of legal issues ranging from Wills & Intestacy to International Humanitarian & Refugee issues, and we even have a group that has been working with a law firm in Virginia investigating the failures of lethal injection drugs in death penalty cases.”

The Law Centre's 'Legal Advocacy Support Project' is staffed by students from the University of the West of England and the University of Law, who prepare cases and represent claimants at their appeal hearings. The project has helped over 200 people over the last two years with an average of £5,000 won for each client.

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