Case study

How Jennie
used the law
to fight for
welfare rights

Working as an advocate for some of the most vulnerable people in society was an opportunity law student Jennie Bird could not pass up. Now a graduate of our Law LLB (Hons), Jennie is proud of her work with Derbyshire County Council on the Welfare Rights Representation Scheme.

Joining the fight

Jennie was in the final year of her degree when the opportunity to work with the Welfare Rights Team came along thanks to our partnership with the county council. The Welfare Rights Representation Scheme (WRRS) helps vulnerable people make their case for the benefits they are entitled to but have been denied.

Jennie explains: “I volunteered for Citizens Advice (CA) already. At CA, I deal with clients who have had their benefits stopped and have ended up getting into debt. I have seen how much it affects people and how it has a negative effect on lots of other things as well.

“I understood how much of a big problem it is, especially for people who have learning difficulties, how hard it is for them fight against it when their benefits have been stopped. At Citizens Advice we refer people to the Welfare Rights Team, and I wanted to get an experience of what is actually done there.”

Our welfare pioneers

Jennie and Monica Humagain, now a final year student on the LLB (Hons), were the first two students at the University to be offered the chance to work with the Welfare Rights Team at Derbyshire County Council.

Jennie admits that welfare rights advocacy was not a part of her career plan. But she knew the lessons she learned from being hands-on in a law environment would help her in her studies and her career.

She says: “I didn’t know about advocacy until I got the opportunity. I got to look at the client myself, do their paperwork and go by myself and speak for them. It’s being a barrister and being a solicitor at the same time.”

What is the WRRS?

Imagine having to make the case for someone else’s livelihood and dignity. Money is at stake, and probably the person’s mental and physical health too. But you’ve seen for yourself the conditions they are living in, the limitations that illness and injury have placed on their ability to look after themselves, and you know what a vital difference more money would make to their everyday lives.

All you’ve got to do now is convince a panel of experts that the system was wrong and that you are right. But the process of proving a disability and your entitlement to benefits is not straightforward, and rejection can lead to months of uncertainty and anxiety. It can result in a nerve-wracking tribunal, having to prove your disability to a panel at the end of a lengthy appeal process. Crucial to that process is the role of an advocate to represent the claimant’s case.

When Derbyshire County Council’s welfare rights team, which provides advocates for claimants across the county, found itself handling a substantial amount of appeals for rejected benefit claims, it turned to the University of Derby for support. The outcome has been a pioneering new partnership which enables our law students to support the welfare rights advocates and even take on the role of advocate themselves, eventually, representing claimants at tribunals, offering them practical experience while they continue to study.

Opportunities and responsibility

Developing a continuing professional development (CPD) portfolio through experience is an integral part of the Law degree at Derby. Being able to learn the theories and put them into practice with live is a vital step towards preparing you for your future career.

At the University of Derby Law School, we pride ourselves on the work we do with local clients. Recognising the importance of placements for students making a positive impact within local communities has become an increasingly important measure for the University.

Law Lecturer Liz Doherty manages the WRRS opportunity. She explains: “We really value the work we get to do with the community. It helps make the University of Derby such an incredible hub for career prospects. The potential of the scheme is amazing because of the experience the students will get. They wouldn’t get that if they were working in a law firm because law firms may be reluctant to give them that level of responsibility.

“With this, there is an awful lot of trust placed in the students and the stakes are high because, for a lot of people, it’s about claiming back and appealing their benefits decisions.

“The skills that students can build will not just be around the professionalism but understanding people. They will become more people-centred, understanding what their issues are and their context.”

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