Critical Reflective Report of Experience of Working in Welfare Benefits Appeals

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Critical Reflective Report

I had chosen the Welfare Benefits Appeals as my preferable area for Clinical Legal Education. The Welfare Benefits is a government program which provides financial aid to individual or groups who cannot support themselves. Although personally, I have not taken up any subjects that were related to Welfare Benefits. The reason I chose the Welfare Benefits Appeals, was because I wanted to defend the rights of those in need and to get hands-on client experience.

Introduction

This report is a reflective account off the developments I have made during the Clinical Legal education that I have embarked upon, to enrich my learning and development as a future barrister. The areas I intend to cover in this critical reflective report includes Legal knowledge, Legal skills, Legal values, and Legal motivation. I will also reflect upon my overview thoughts on the introductory telephone call with the client, and the follow-up meeting with the client. Additionally, I would also analyze  the areas on which future development will be identified with the view on how to address them and hope to implement these beneficial new lessons towards my growth as a barrister.

I was put into a group of four and was told that we would be working together on all the future cases. We were given a Clinical Legal Education briefing, which allowed us to have a clear and better understanding of what to expect from the Welfare Benefits Appeal. As my group members were from different classes, we all had different timetables. To overcome a possible communication barrier, we created a Whatsapp group that enabled us to discuss ideas despite our schedules and plan meetings efficiently. Even though it was just creating a group message, I have gradually developed my communication skills, as I would keep my fellow members updated with any unexpected change of plans. Once we made the group, we started allocating the workload.

First Case

When we were notified of the first case, we decided to arrange a telephone conference with the client. One of my group members had volunteered to do the questioning whilst I wrote down the minutes of the telephone conference. The other members had written down important information such as dates of the next client meeting. Our first telephone meeting took approximately 40 minutes. I initially assumed that it would take a maximum of 20 minutes, but I had underestimated the queries that the client would have. We had scheduled for the client to bring in the bundle to the Student Service for us to photocopy. The legal knowledge that I had gained is that the telephone conference is not necessarily our legal expertise in the sense that we were advised to avoid legal terms and encouraged to use more basic or descriptive terms so that clients would have a better understanding. The legal skills that I had acquired through this first telephone conference were watching how my group members performed by having such a natural flair for eliciting information from the client and explaining how the case is likely to progress. However, we had failed to remind the client to bring the doctor’s notes that he had received which was not part of the bundle. We reminded ourselves to not make the same mistake for the next case and hence prepare a checklist.

Upon receiving the photocopied bundle, we read his file and highlighted issues that needed clarity. Because the meeting we had arranged with the client was within a few days, we had to rush through the reading. We perhaps could have scheduled the meeting for a later date to give us more time to read through the bundle. We could have improved by reading more case-laws as this would have helped our understanding. I did not manage to research his file properly. I underestimated the amount of time we would take to go through the bundle. However, because we were a group of four, we were able to bounce ideas off each other and clarify each other’s understanding of the case. Contrastingly, we should have arranged another meeting for us to go through the case and reflect everything that we had previously discussed. This would have allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the case. I learnt to plan ahead and not make assumptions.

On the day of the meeting, we were all welcoming and friendly to ensure that the client was comfortable. We explained to him the process of the meeting and on how we were

going to approach the meeting. The purpose of us doing that was to build a good rapport with the client and put him in ease.  We allowed him to give us his point of view on the case at hand but also made sure that he was not going off topic. However, it was challenging because he seemed rather introverted and only gave us ‘one-liner’ answers. But we did not force him nor did we interrupt or cut him off when we realized that he was slowly going to off topic. Instead, we noted it down and asked him about those issues.  Our main concerns were about his medication and doctor’s note, which upon reflection we should have informed him during the telephone conference to bring the notes from his doctor. By doing this, it would have given us the opportunity to go through the doctor’s note and save time. So next time, we should remind the client during the telephone conference to bring along important documents, which we managed to do for the next case. However, we took turns in explaining when we realized one of the group members was not able to get the point across, this made the communication more effective, and made sure we got all the relevant information.

I was not able to attend the Tribunal because the timing of the tribunal that clashed with one of my class. Despite that, I was still being updated of the case through Whatsapp. The following day, I met up with my group members who let me know what happened during the hearing. There were few things that needed improvement, such a preparing a checklist before going to the Hearing. We did not realize the importance of doing that. The tribunal was however adjourned as they wanted evidence of his medical history and consultation notes from the psychiatrist he sees. Although upon reflection, we further discussed and identified what we could have done better and differently for the next time. The first hearing taught me that we may be confronted with a complicated scenario or difficult scenario and maybe even one which has no immediate solution. The Legal value that I have learnt was to analyze and reach well-reasoned as well as evidenced decisions, I was able to develop problem-solving skills to find innovative solutions.

Second Case

Not long after our first case, we were given our second case. While working with the second client, I used the necessary tools and techniques that I have learned from in the first case. We decided to arrive earlier to mentally prepare ourselves and note down important questions that we would want to ask the client. But this time it was slightly different because it was just me and my other group member who was in the university to collect the bundle. While my group member went to photocopy the bundle, I was in charge of giving the client a brief explanation. Since this was my first time talking to a real client, I felt that I was under pressure to ensure to ask all the questions that were needed. I thought I would need to make decisions quickly and appear professional. I now appreciate how hard it is to put reasonable judgment. [1]

However, because I paid attention to how my group member spoke to the previous client, I managed to pick up upon that. I was able to work more efficiently, as I was clear and quick. I explained to her who we were are and what were our roles. Adding on to that, I made sure not to repeat the mistakes we made with the first client. I reminded the client to bring the doctor’s notes or any medical evidence that would help strengthen her case when she comes in for the client meeting. I further explained to her that our advice is limited until we have the opportunity to read through the bundle. However, if she had any queries, she could contact us through our supervisor. As we were about to finish briefing her, we arranged for a proper client meeting the following week. We managed to allocate a sufficient amount of time to read through the bundle so that we would not miss out important issues.

The client brought her sister to the meeting. I had informed her that, it will just be me and another member who will be conducting this meeting. When the client arrived, she seemed rather relieved that it was only me in the room. However, the client had asked me the procedure of a Tribunal, which I had very limited knowledge of because I did not look into that. Thankfully, my group member went for to the first Tribunal, hence she was able to give a detailed explanation of the procedure. I had noted down what she had said for future reference. Before we ended the meeting, I made sure the client was clear in regard to the date and time of the Tribunal.

The sister initially seemed very dominant and was answering most the questions on behalf of the client who was initially quiet. We explained to the sister in a polite way that we would need the client to the answer the questions because, during Tribunal, the judge would be directing the questions to the client unless he or she says otherwise. We calmly explained to her that by doing this, we are able to prepare her in answering questions during the day of the hearing. The sister respected what we had explained, and from then the client started opening up and answering the questions. We explained how the system works and while there might be other factors worth considering, they would not fit within the criteria. We told her we may ask her some challenging questions but she can take her time to answer them. We also made her aware that everything she tells us is strictly confidential and that this was a safe space.

We allowed the client to explain her situation including matters that were not related because we wanted to make her feel that she was being heard and we care about her. Hence, we wanted to build her trust and confidence in us. In the midst of discussing, our client began to get emotional as she started explaining her struggles which were mainly about her limited mobility and anxiety. We told her that it is good that she is addressing these issues to us.  Upon reflection, the legal skill that I have learned through this Client meeting is the importance of all aspects of communication, both verbal and non- verbal, such as body language, eye contact, especially facial expression. It has taught me how non- verbal communication can be in expressing meaning.

During my client meeting, I was able to practice my communication skills which enabled me to interact with someone who is from a different culture and background. For example, when I observed her facial expression during her concerns, I asked her if she understood what was discussed with her. She told us, she was a bit unsure with certain issues that were being discussed. We immediately went over the areas which she did not understand. Through this scenario, I have learnt that good communication skills are important when interviewing clients, I have broken down a few techniques and skills such as attentive listening as well as re-phrasing as this would help relieve the anxiety of the client.

The tricky part I felt was when we had to advise her, this is because we had to explain in a way that would not come off as coaching her, as coaching the client would be unethical. Because ethical awareness is amongst us students, we were very cautious about it throughout the clinical legal education.  We realized, there was a fine line between advising her and coaching her. Ultimately, we made it clear to her that we were unable to coach her as it would be breaking our ethical codes. We were very careful with our choice of words. We made sure we spoke to her in layman terms to ensure that she understood what we were saying. We tried to rephrase our questions to make it simpler for her.  Despite that fact, I found the interviewing task a bit challenging.

Upon reflection, at the start of the meeting, it seemed rather closed off, and not much was said but as time passed, the client started to loosen up and begun to explain every aspect of the indicator. By the end of the meeting, we managed to build a good rapport as she felt more comfortable to open up to us. This is definitely an improvement from the previous client we had. Although we were firm, we also showed empathy. We were careful not to dwell on sensitive issues as it be would difficult to focus back on the main issues.  I felt we were able to find the balance.

Prior to the hearing, we met at the university before going to the Tribunal and we had compiled the list of matters which we thought the Tribunal needed to be aware of. We went over the document and made sure the authorization letter was in the bundle.

Once we reached the Tribunal building. We met with the client at the entrance, we went through the document to see if there was any new developments or documentation in their case. We chatted about other things with her just to help her calm down. We tried to take their mind off the stress by asking them how their week was and what transport they took to come here.

We explained to her what was going to happen. The client seemed sceptical about the tribunal process but we reassured her that although it may feel like this, ultimately everyone there is willing to see the full picture. We were able to put her at ease and she had already told us how nervous she was. I told her the point of this Tribunal is for her to tell her part of the story, and address anything that she feels that need to be heard. We familiarized ourselves with the room, we were told to wait at the waiting room and hand in the relevant documents. Few minutes from then, we were told to enter the room and were seated facing the Tribunal Judge. We were asked for our names and were given the opportunity to state the brief issues.

The client had brought her friend for support as her sister was not able to come in, we explained to the friend that it is important for the panel to hear from the client. Despite reminding the friend, she still answered some questions that were specifically directed to the client, to the point the judge had to tell her off several times. The judge further told the friend that she will be given the opportunity to speak when the client is done talking. At one point, the client started crying and we handed her tissues to help calm her down. We did that to show her that we empathize and understand how challenging she might feel when she was being interrogated, we further told her to take a breather, not rush, we tried to put her at ease and to make her feel that we were on her side.  We ticked off the matters that had been covered just to ensure we were not missing out on anything important.

The tribunal took approximately 2 hours. The Tribunal Judge gave us two options as to whether we would prefer to wait for another 20 minutes for the verdict or send them via post. It was decided by the client that she would prefer to wait for that 20 minutes.  We patiently waited at the waiting room to receive the verdict. We were called into the room a few minutes later, and the client was successful in her appeal. We were thrilled to hear the good news. As we left the tribunal, she kept on thanking us. This experience allowed me to develop invaluable skills. But on a more personal level, it allowed me to feel proud of my hard work, which comes to show dedication and the effort we had put in helping my client receive the justice she deserved. Adding on to that the feeling of making a difference to the lives of the ordinary people is truly rewarding and I have gained knowledge by attending the Tribunal.

Upon after attending the hearing, it offered me a perspective, it improved my ability to use the knowledge that I have, to see the client’s issue in the broader context and then use this knowledge to build a solution. it broadened my mind in the difficulties that were faced by the client. This helped me gain an insight into particular challenges and needs that can arise. I also feel more confident with general processes and procedures.

Legal Knowledge on Welfare Benefits

Access to welfare benefits impacts millions of individuals, including some of the most vulnerable members of society, as “a social security case may well involve a claimant's right to livelihood revenue and thus directly influence their access to the most basic necessities of life"[2]. It was usually thought that welfare benefits were intended to ensure a fundamental level of entitlement for those who were unable to sustain themselves and provide the vulnerable with a safety net. This principle has been undermined by the welfare reform program launched in 2010. Because of a combination, many claimants have little or no income for important periods of time. Because of the combination of delays, conditions and penalties. These issues were compounded by the rollout of universal credit. Upon reflection, it is essential, through judicial review, to provide immediate relief to individual claimants facing misery or the loss of their home.[3]

In an article written by David Binder states that the media plays and continues to pay a big role in defining the perception around Welfare. The society in United Kingdom is seemingly unprecedented welfare reform. It appears that the welfare spending on the poor has consistently declined over the past three decades. A report in 2011, showed the negative perceptions of welfare recipients were held by considerable minorities of the population, whilst those in receipt of unemployment benefits were viewed pessimistically in terms of their ability to find a job by an outright majority. Upon reflection. [4]The media have a very considerable role to play in influencing perceptions and constructions of those receiving welfare and benefits. In looking at some national newspaper websites for example, it’s easy to see how those on benefits are portrayed.

Whilst indeed there are a minority who abuse the system in a welfare and benefits apparatus that can be significantly improved in a number of ways.[5]

Reflection

Despite that we were only given two cases, I was able to critically evaluate the mistakes that I have made throughout the Clinical Learning Education. Amongst the mistakes are, my assumptions in regards to the capability of remembering key documents without listing them down.  I realized the importance of making a checklist as it was helpful to ensure that I was not missing out on unaddressed matters. This has definitely aided me in putting the client’s version of events. One of the biggest challenges was conducting a telephone conference. Initially I was felt relieved to hear when one of my group members’ volunteered to conduct the first meeting with the client. This was because I was unfamiliar with the process of legal client interview and I found it intimidating as I experienced some nervousness, but after watching my group member perform, I began to work on my fears and confidence by becoming more involved in the group discussion.

 However, there were some approaches that needed to be changed. I found myself asking questions to the client for the sake of asking. Therefore, I decided to break down the areas that I needed to cover with the client during the interview. Moreover, I had to work on was eye contact with the client, this was because my main focus was addressing matters from the bundle. However, I hope to improve my interviewing skills in the future. Although the interview with the client may not be seen as a big fraction of importance, through the activity of interviewing, it has enhanced my development, by allowing me to demonstrate a legal style of interviewing which requires a lot of diligence and consideration. However, I hope to improve this skill with practice in the future

Effective time management was one of the Legal values that I have learned, especially for meeting deadline and important tasks. Having a brief meeting prior to the client’s arrival was helpful as I was able to run through the necessary matter that needed to be addressed during the meeting. I also realized the importance of getting to the tribunal early, this allowed me to familiarised myself with the place. Because I had informed the client to come earlier, I was able to have the time to go through the documents and find out if there was any new development. I was also able to go through the procedure of the tribunal with the client, to put her at ease.

This Clinical Legal Education did not only assess my substantive knowledge and skills but also the learning journey I have taken from the beginning to the end of the course. I had also acquired legal knowledge as it had built a bridge between the classroom and the workplace. It had enabled me to evaluate my ideas presented during the course. I was able to perform effectively within the professional environment with my group members. Working within a team allowed me to demonstrate interpersonal skills such as effective listening, negotiating, persuading and presentation. I was able to be flexible and adaptable to changes within the professional environment.

Moreover, throughout the Clinical Legal Education, I developed effective communication as this is one of the key foundations to a strong lawyer and client relationship. The Legal knowledge that I have learned in the academic aspect of it is that conducting a client meeting is conducive to develop practice skills, which would not have been accessible in a traditional classroom context. I have demonstrated that I am able to make a decision at the moment and work with clients confidently and effectively. The client, also stated that she felt that I had listened to her views and supported her well. This made me realize how important it is to take the time to ask the right questions, truly listen to the client and not make assumptions. I think the ability to do this requires a calm approach.

This has shown me, that with confidence and a secure knowledge base, I can persuade people to take me more seriously and trust in my decision. On the ethical context, the Clinical Legal Education has allowed me to narrow the understanding and compliance with codes of professional conduct. For example, I was exposed to more decision making, dilemmas and the concepts of personal as well as professional responsibility which makes a professional judgement.[6] Throughout the course of the Clinical Legal Education, I was able to appreciate the social justice problems, it has given me the exposure to these problems and the resulting legal problems and disputes[7] .

Conclusion

Overall, I have found that the various tasks allocated was the biggest learning curve for me and influenced my learning immensely. It has shown me how complex  the work would be without proper preparation. I feel that I have performed well, as I have done things that I have never done before such as giving legal advice to an actual client and attending the tribunal. This has put my communication skills in practice. I learned the importance of thinking fast. On reflection, I developed reflective skills such as self-awareness, ability to analyze, and evaluate.  I believe that these activities have been beneficial to my growth and development as a responsible, ethical barrister. I hope to be able to implement these new lessons and skills in communication when representing clients in the future. Additionally, I will continue to acquire more legal knowledge to prepare me to face professional challenges, especially in the area of decision making. I want to see learning as part of me; learning new skills every day is a lifelong experience. Through this, it will help me close the gap between theory and practice. Doing this Clinical Legal Education has allowed me to come out of my comfort zone, and be more comfortable to work closely with my peers and also allowed me to assess my strength and weakness.

Bibliography

Case Law

  • Wiles v Social Security Commissioner & Anr  [2010] , Civ 258.

Website

  • Kevin Kerrigan and Victoria Murray , “ A Student Guide to Clinical Legal Education and Pro Bono” / accessed on 28 May 2019
  • David Binder , ‘Attitudes towards welfare and welfare recipients are hardening’ accessed on 1 June 2019
  • SkillforCare, accessed on 27 May 2019

[1] Skill for Care, < https://www.skillsforcare.org.uk/Documents/Learning-and-development/ASYE-adults/Critical-reflection-log-with-NQSW-comments.pdf> accessed on 27 May 2019

[2] Wiles v Social Security Commissioner & Anr  [2010] , Civ 258.

[3] Welfare Benefits Law <https://www.gardencourtchambers.co.uk/areas-of-law/welfare-benefits-law > accessed 20 May 2019

[4] David Binder, ‘Attitudes towards welfare and welfare recipients are hardening’ accessed on 1 June 2019

[5] David Binder , ‘Attitudes towards welfare and welfare recipients are hardening’ accessed on 1 June 2019

 

[6] Kevin Kerrigan and Victoria Murray, ‘A Student Guide to Clinical Legal Education and Pro Bonohttp’ www.macmillanihe.com/companion/Kerrigan-A-Student-Guide-To-Clinical-Legal-Education/resources/Chapter-02/ accessed on 29 May 2019

[7] Kevin Kerrigan and Victoria Murray, ‘A Student Guide to Clinical Legal Education and Pro Bonohttp’ www.macmillanihe.com/companion/Kerrigan-A-Student-Guide-To-Clinical-Legal-Education/resources/Chapter-02/ accessed on 29 May 2019

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