Thursday, 22 March 2012


L is a 45-year-old woman and lives with her abusive partner. L suffers from a debilitating mood disorder and finds it very difficult to manage her affairs. She is isolated and fearful most of the time. She has no friends to speak of because her partner has forbidden them. Her family live hundreds of miles away and she is estranged from them.

At the moment, L is in receipt of Incapacity Benefit which is a benefit for people who are not well enough to work and who have paid enough national insurance contributions through employment. It is a non means-tested benefit which means that the income of the claimant and other members of his / her household is not taken into account.

L's partner works full time and earns a very good wage. Because L's Incapacity Benefit is non means-tested, her partner's income was not taken into account for the purposes of her benefit claim. This is a convenient arrangement for her as her partner does not share his income with her in any respect. In other words, L would be without an income if it weren't for her Incapacity Benefit.

The government has scrapped Incapacity Benefit and replaced it with a new benefit called Employment & Support Allowance (ESA). Every Incapacity Benefit claimant will, at some point, be told that their benefit will be coming to an end and invited to make a new claim for ESA. Migration onto ESA is by no means automatic and the law around entitlement to it is very different from that of Incapacity Benefit.

When L is migrated onto ESA (assuming she passes the work capability assessment and is awarded the benefit), she will be paid contributory ESA which is non means-tested. This means that, financially, she will be in the same or, at least, a very similar position to the one she is currently in.

However, the new ESA regulations say all Incapacity Benefit claimants who were migrated onto contributory ESA (which is non means-tested) will only be entitled to this for 12 months. After this, claimants can make a claim for income-related ESA which is means-tested.

This will cause L huge problems. When her 12-month period has expired, she will almost certainly not be entitled to income-related ESA as her partner's income will be taken into account, which will take her over the threshold for entitlement. When this happens, she will be without her own income and will have to rely on her partner's. She insists that her partner will refuse to support her financially. 

L has been with her partner for nearly 20 years and says that she cannot leave him because she would not know how. She is reluctant to get legal advice around the domestic violence and, given the changes to legal aid, it is unlikely that L would be entitled to legal aid for this as she would probably not be able to provide the appropriate evidence required to access it.

The likely outcome of L's situation is that she will descend further into isolation and her health problems will become worse. Her lack of autonomy will become more pronounced as she loses her last grain of independence and she will be failed by the government's hostile new legal aid bill if she tries to get help to leave her abuser.

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