Social Welfare Law is the term used in the UK to describe those areas of civil law in which people on low incomes, who are typically disadvantaged, are prone to experience difficulties. Internationally, the term Poverty Law is used. Social welfare law is a very large and diverse area of law that draws on and overlaps with many other areas.
The majority of definitions class this area of law as encompassing debt, discrimination, mental health, welfare benefits, employment, education, community care, immigration and housing. Debt, welfare benefits, employment and housing are the areas which have received the greatest number of public enquiries at advice centres in the past.
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 a social welfare 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 doing investigative benefits checks to find out why a particular benefit has been refused. Relevant case law will need to be researched and statements from professionals such as social workers need to be gathered. A trainee lawyer needs to prepare the paperwork for tribunals, as well as prepare the client for the tribunal and possibly 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 need to provide practical advice to clients to help them better manage their debts and prioritise payments. A debt lawyer will need to liaise with creditors to negotiate terms with bailiffs. Dealing with the courts is a significant part of the role.
An education lawyer has a range of clients, which typically include 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 is vital to be able to conduct pre-tribunal investigations and comprehend the very complex benefits regulations. Investigative skills are also important to be able to conduct pre-tribunal investigations and good advocacy skills are necessary for the tribunals themselves. 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.
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 are vital for speaking at Special Needs Tribunals.
Legal Action Group – This charity promotes equal access to justice and has up-to-date information on legal aid reforms, lobbying and potential changes to Social Welfare Law on their website.