CAB appeals for voluntary legal eagles

March 18, 2013

Newry and Mourne Citizens Advice Bureau is appealing for volunteers with experience of working within the legal system, to help ease the pressure on the representation service it offers to clients appealing benefit decisions.

And until it is able to recruit such volunteers, the group has been forced to limit the number of appeal hearings it can offer representation at, as there is only one full-time Representative currently employed in this post.

Rosemarie McDonnell, Manager of the Newry CAB branch explained that, since the introduction of the reassessment of people on the former Incapacity Benefit, the Bureau has seen a 60% increase in the number of people appealing Employment Support Allowance (ESA) decisions.   The added pressure on an already over-stretched service, as well as the huge stress and hardship placed on clients, has led the charity to take the major decision to recruit volunteers with a legal background.

“We are dealing with cancer patients, people with serious mental health conditions, those suffering longterm ill health, who suddenly find that their benefit is no longer applicable and they have to appeal to be put back onto it. As a result, we are inundated with the amount of appeals,” said Rosemarie.

“We feel so strongly that everyone should be represented.  It’s so important that people have representatives advocating for them throughout the appeal process so it has taken us quite some time to come to the reluctant decision that, until we can get the right people on board, we can only deal with a certain amount of appeals.”

Rosemarie explained that the Newry Citizens Advice Bureau currently already deals with around 800 people every month who need help and assistance on a wide range of issues. With the biggest shakeup in the benefits system since the welfare state began, she says the Bureau can only expect to see a greater demand on its service.

“We want to raise awareness about how difficult it is for a charity like us to provide this advocacy service, in addition to all the other information, advice and services we provide for people.  In order to continue doing this we are appealing for anyone with a legal background, be they law students or retired solicitors or barristers to volunteer with us.”

The dedicated manager revealed that the Bureau will provide a fast track course for legal volunteers which will enable them to represent clients at appeal tribunals. This may be particularly attractive to law students, she said, who wished to gain valuable experience and avail of extra training.

Rosemarie also cited the proposed new paperless system as another major change in welfare legislation which will have a serious impact on people on benefits throughout the district.

“As with our decision to appeal for legal volunteers, we are trying to build capacity to be ready for more changes which are due to happen. In our Newry office we are working towards having more laptops available for client use and in Crossmaglen, we fully support the community centre’s application to have a computer suite installed, where we could send our volunteers on certain days to assist people in completing online benefit applications.”

It would seem that Benefit reform will have far reaching implications, not just for those in receipt of benefits, but for the organisations and charities who provide the vital assistance needed by those people.

If you would like to volunteer with Citizens Advice to assist clients needing representation, please contact Rosemarie on 02830 269224.