"It’s like a game of chess" – interview with our Legal Officer Mike Spencer

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Our Legal Officer Mike Spencer has headed off to a secondment at the Supreme Court, so we caught up with him before he went on the highs and lows of fighting CPAG’s legal battles on behalf of children in poverty.

So, what’s been the highlight of working at CPAG so far?

I’m most proud of the case on disabled refugee children, because that was the case where I took the process on from start to finish – someone drew this issue to my attention and I thought about the legal arguments, pursued them all the way through the tribunals, even did the hearing at the end – and we won. The whole thing was really satisfying and rewarding. I built a really good relationship with the clients and I really felt for them because they were in such a dire situation.

How did they react when you won?

They were in tears - they’d had such a difficult time. Being a refugee, then having a disabled child – they’re two of the most difficult things that can happen to a person.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

I think it’s the responsibility of losing – that’s really difficult. I lost a case and it was really devastating. It was potentially going to affect a lot of people, though thankfully in the end it didn’t. I started to think – am I doing the right thing? There’s a balance – you do have to be really tenacious and push at issues, but if you push at them too hard you can sometimes end up with the wrong result and that can be counterproductive for the people you’re trying to help.

Is it difficult working with clients who are going through a really hard time?

Clients tend to be amazing, it’s always inspiring to hear their stories. The difficulty is that you do need to create a bit of a boundary – you can’t solve all their problems, and they sometimes have a lot of problems, so you have to focus on where you can make a difference. It’s difficult to switch between empathy with a client and keeping a professional barrier.

What would be your advice to your successor?

A lot of things! The biggest would be: be tenacious. Don’t give up. All the agencies involved will try to stop you bringing a case to court, including your opponent and the legal aid agency, they’ll throw every procedural hurdle in your way, and you’ve just got to keep pushing to get there. That’s certainly the lesson I got from the council tax case, where at every stage they said this case shouldn’t go to court, but when it did we won spectacularly.

And then the other thing would be to think strategically, and bear in mind the potential costs of losing, the possible negative consequences of some cases.

Why are test cases such an important part of CPAG’s campaigning work?

I think the first point is that they have intrinsic value in themselves – they achieve a lot that we couldn’t necessarily achieve through other forms of campaigning, in that they can be a direct means of making sure more children get access to a more generous social security system. They tip the direction of the law in that direction. They show to the world that we know what we’re talking about. Government are more likely to listen to us, because they don’t want to go court. MPs might be more willing to listen because we know our way around the law – we can think about unintended consequences of policy changes.

There are very few specialist social security lawyers (though lots of great welfare rights workers). I think CPAG adds a strategic outlook to social security law – you can see that in our interventions on the benefit cap case, where we intervened really effectively. We’re very strategic in the cases we take, and we’re lucky we can draw on our networks of welfare rights workers.

What are the biggest issues coming up?

The Welfare Reform and Work Act is very concerning, in terms of the impact it is going to have on children, and also a lot of the policy intent behind it, which takes a very moralistic, anti-children, anti-poor approach, almost Victorian really, which is very concerning. I personally think the worst measure is the two child rule, because it singles out children in larger families, who are in fact in greater need, and says that they should never have been born. That’s a really worrying trend, the idea that children aren’t worthwhile in themselves, by matter of their birth deserving of a good start in life.

I’m also really concerned by the reduction of the benefit cap, because the cap has already had a really harsh impact on a small but significant number of families - lots of families being moved really far away from their schools and communities, so that’s really worrying. And reducing it is just going to increase that expotentially.

And then the conditionality for lone parents, the increasing sanction regime that is now applying to carers of children who are three or four. The idea of sanctioning someone who’s a lone parent of a child who’s 3 years’ old is very concerning. All these are going to be big issues for us.

So, what are you most looking forward to about your new role at the Supreme Court?

Not having to do legal aid applications! No [laughs]. Lots, really. Getting to know the judges, getting to know how they think, is going to be amazing. Learning from them, and learning about other areas of law beyond social security, and it will be really useful because you can take a lot of that back. And observing some really good advocacy in hearings. Of course, the personal views I have on some of the recent legislation mentioned above will have to be set firmly to one side during my year at the Court.

Did you enjoy doing advocacy?

I love the advocacy, it’s my favourite part of the whole job. I love appearing at the tribunal.

Why?

Because it’s like chess – like a game of wits. You have to outwit your opponent by being better prepared and more on top of your subject matter – and doing it here is like playing a game of chess for children in poverty, so you know you’re on the side of right.

If you support our legal work, please consider making a donation to help us here. While Mike is on secondment we're delighted to be joined by Carla Clarke who will continue to drive forward our legal case work.