This research examined the legal needs of beneficiaries and how community law centres can respond. Beneficiaries’ experiences of accessing welfare entitlements, reviewing and appealing benefit decisions to Medical Appeals Boards, Benefits Review Committees and the Social Security Appeal Authority, and investigation for benefit fraud were examined using qualitative and quantitative methods. Interviews were conducted with 34 beneficiaries, and 21 others who had close involvement with the benefit system. This qualitative data was supplemented by an online survey with 17 community law centres and 14 beneficiary advocacy groups; statistical data from community law centres and government agencies; and a literature review.
The findings reveal beneficiaries have significant unmet legal needs, including information about entitlements, assistance to prepare for benefit reviews and appeals, advice during fraud investigations, and having access to legal representation where this is needed. Access to legal help was identified as particularly important for beneficiaries because of the power imbalance between beneficiaries and Work and Income, the complexity of welfare law, Work and Income’s practice of making day-to-day decisions based on policy, and the impact of entitlements being declined. The research also identified a number of barriers to accessing legal help, including beneficiaries not being aware problems with benefits were something they could get legal help with, and their inability to pay for lawyers’ services. Although community law services are free, the research found low levels of awareness of community law centres, their services and who can access them.
Community law centres’ purpose is providing free legal services to people on low incomes, however the level of welfare law work undertaken by centres is low. Options are outlined to assist community law centres to improve beneficiaries’ access to their services, and the quality, scope and extent of their welfare law services.