Should we encourage freelance welfare rights advisors to advertise on the Benefits and Work website? We’​d really like to know what you think.

A bill currently being fast-tracked through parliament will end, or drastically reduce, legal aid for a wide variety of issues experienced by ordinary people, such as problems with: benefits, debt, housing and employment.

Legal aid for benefits is set to end completely. Although Ken Clarke has belatedly agreed to make £​20 million in transitional payments available to advice agencies, this will not come anywhere near making up the shortfall in funding and may well be short-term only. A complete u-turn in relation to benefits legal aid seems extraordinarily unlikely, so this is probably as good as it’​s going to get.

Unfortunately, many advice centres rely on legal aid to fund their specialist workers. These workers may, in turn, support a large number of volunteer advisers as well as taking on cases themselves. The result of the cuts is likely to be a large number of specialist workers being made redundant. This means that claimants will find it much more difficult to get reliable advice about benefits both from specialists and volunteers, let alone get someone to represent them at a hearing.

Meanwhile, even now, on most days of the week we receive at least one request from someone asking if we have a list of solicitors or advisers who can take on their case for money, as they have been unable to find free advice. We always reply that we don’​t keep such a list.

The reality is that the majority of companies that advertise their services in relation to welfare benefits tend to have no details of who their staff are or what qualifications or experience they have. They generally charge between 40-50% of any back payment a claimant receives, even if they have only helped to complete a claim form. This can run into thousands of pounds for an hour or two’​s work.

One of the reasons for this lack of reputable private sector help is that most welfare rights workers believe that charging claimants is morally reprehensible and, even if they were prepared to do so, they would worry about being shunned by their colleagues.

So, with the end of legal aid, the skills and knowledge of hundreds of redundant welfare rights workers will be entirely lost whilst the people who might benefit from them are forced to go without help or turn to dubious companies as their last resort.

And yet, it is very straightforward to provide freelance advice without large up-front costs. Holiday Whitehead, one of the founders of Benefits and Work, provides just such a service for a limited number of employees who cannot afford the £​180 an hour level of solicitors fees. A simple web page with a Paypal ‘​Buy now’​ button allows clients to purchase an hour’​s advice at a time. All advice is given via telephone and email and if any documents need to be reviewed the client has to be able to scan and email or fax them.

It’​s not the perfect service for everyone. But for the people who can take advantage of it, it works exceedingly well. Very often, an hour’​s advice can transform the way a claimant approaches an employment dispute and dramatically alter the power relationship between employer and employee.

There is no technical reason why welfare rights workers could not provide a similar service. Professional liability insurance is readily obtainable and all that is needed aside from that is a computer connected to the internet and a telephone.

For many claimants such a service would be unusable because they need higher levels of support. Others would lack the equipment or ability to scan and send documents. A high proportion would not be able to afford up-front payments –​ although sensible no-win no-fee arrangements might be a solution here, with a cap on the maximum amount payable.

But for a minority of claimants such a service would be a godsend.

Benefits and Work has no intention of getting involved in providing advice services ourselves. But we would be happy to consider vetting freelance advisors by taking up references as to their previous employment. We would also be willing to help suitable advisers to promote their services via the website and newsletter.

Faced with the prospect of redundancy and with little hope of re-employment in their specialist field, some welfare rights workers may revise their thinking about the morality of charging.

But the big question is: do you want such a service to be available on this site or do you agree with those who think it would be morally wrong? Please let us have your opinion.


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