Social Welfare Law (SWL) is the term used in the UK to describe those areas of civil law with which people on low incomes, who are typically disadvantaged, are prone to experience difficulties. Internationally, the term Poverty Law is used. SWL is a very large and diverse area of law that draws on, and overlaps with many other.
The majority of definitions class SWL as encompassing debt, discrimination, mental health, welfare benefits, employment, education, community care, immigration and housing. Of these, debt, welfare benefits, employment and housing are the areas which have in the past, in respective order, receive the greatest number of public enquiries at advice centres.
This article will focus on debt, welfare benefits and education as these are the key areas not covered by other practice area articles.
What does this type of lawyer do?
Issues dealt with by a Welfare Benefits lawyer can range from benefits overpayments through to fraudulent benefits claims. A trainee will usually take responsibility for interviewing new clients and also doing investigative benefits check to find out why a certain benefit has been refused. Relevant case law will need to be researched and statements sought from professionals such as social workers. A trainee lawyer needs to prepare the paperwork for tribunals as well as prepare the client for the tribunal and possibly also advocate on their behalf.
The work of a Debt lawyer can range from home repossessions through to bankruptcy and credit card debt. As well as interviewing clients and advising upon the legal aspects of a case, a Debt lawyer may also need to provide practical advice to clients to help them better manage their debts and prioritise payments. A Debt lawyer will also need to liaise with creditors to negotiate terms with bailiffs. Dealing with the Courts is a significant part of the role.
An Education lawyer can see a range of clients, which typically includes parents with grievances against Local Authorities, students bringing cases against Higher Education and pupils suffering bullying. Many families seek help with regards to a child’s special needs.
What skills are required?
A Welfare Benefits lawyer will need strong numerical skills to quickly grasp details of a person’s benefits and/or debts. Excellent attention to detail to comprehend the very complex benefits regulations and to conduct pre-tribunal investigations is vital. For the latter, investigative skills are also important. Empathy is needed, as is the ability to deal with difficult and emotional clients. A confident and reassuring manner will be valued as clients will often be frightened, perplexed or ill. Good advocacy skills will be necessary for tribunals.
Excellent negotiation skills are required as a Debt lawyer will frequently have to liaise with creditors on behalf of the client. An empathetic but resilient outlook is needed as many of the cases dealt with will be depressing and emotionally charged. Numerical skills are crucial to make sense of people’s finances and credit agreements.
To succeed in the role an Education lawyer will need to have an interest in socio-political issues and a desire to set about improving people’s lives. Strong academic ability and meticulous attention to detail is needed to understand Public Law and Contract. Excellent people skills are needed to deal with frustrated and angry clients and advocacy skills for speaking at a Special Needs Tribunal are also vital.
By far the biggest issue facing those working is the area of Social Welfare Law is funding. Many of the areas of law covered under this banner are no longer eligible for legal aid funding, or there are clear limits on the type of cases which remain within scope. In addition, many not-for-profit organisations such as Law Centres and CABs, are suffering from cuts to other sources of funding too. This is at a time, critics of the government argue, when government policy is causing a greater number of people to need the assistance offered by those working in this area.