The Tribunal

To cut out any suspense, the outcome of today’s Upper Tier tribunal is that the judge reserved judgement until next week. My gut tells me that Hillingdon will win – for all the wrong reasons but they will still win.

It was exhausting, horrible, non – sensical, the epitome of everything that I normally write about.

I was thrown right at the beginning. For two reasons. Firstly, I had a representative from Housing and Support Alliance with me but she was not allowed to speak. Hillingdon brought a barrister with them, who not only was allowed to question me but was also the person who presented Hillingdon’s legal argument. There was no way that I could compete on that level – I dont have the experience, the knowledge or the language. It was a stark reminder of the damage done by the Legal Aid reforms – the waiting room was packed but I don’t think a single person there had any representation with them. But of course, the state, Hillingdon, could afford full representation from a barrister. The odds were hopelessly stacked against us before we even set foot in the courtroom. The second thing that threw me before we started was being approached by the housing benefit manager just as we were walking down the corridor to the courtroom and him telling me that the housing manager who has been in charge of arranging Steven’s housing is now on leave for three weeks. The timing was awful and for the first five minutes of the hearing, my mind was elsewhere. But I guess that was the point.

I liked the judge. He seemed empathic and he gave me lots of time to try and present my argument. But it was clear that he was trapped by Hillingdon’s use of the law. However, as my rep pointed out, this was the Upper Tier, so he can set case law if he feels so inclined.

In a nutshell, the regulations state the marital home can be disregarded as available capital if it is occupied by a Partner; or a relative who is incapacitated. It further states that the home can be disregarded if it is occupied by a relative of a member of my family.

Hillingdon’s argument which seems to be supported by law:

1. My wife is no longer my partner as we are living apart (albeit that we are living apart because the council told us that we had to). We spent over an hour batting this one around and at no time was there any acknowledgement of the realities of a relationship with someone with serious mental health problems. For example – “You are not partners because you dont do things together socially” But that was the case when we did live together because my wife was usually frightened to leave the house.

2. My wife is neither a relative too, The HB guidance gives a very long list of people who are relatives and include: my brother in law, a non blood uncle but a wife is not included as a relative.

3. The last one really sticks in my throat. My wife is Steven’s mother, so they are relatives but Steven is not a member of my family because he is over 18. No account whatsoever is taken of the realities of the home life of an adult with severe learning disabilities.

So if Steven is not a member of my family, who is he? Who am I? Who is he when I cook his meals. Who am I when I wipe his arse? Who are we when we sit on the floor acting out Basil and Manuel? I bet the social care world would see this very differently if I said to them – okay, Steven is not a member of my family, therefore pay me like all the other non family members get paid for all the caring work I do. When Steven eventually gets his flat, I won’t be there as his father – I’m on the forms as his “live in carer” – okay, dismiss the family relationship and pay me as a live in carer. It won’t happen of course because in this Orwellian world, people can be family or not be family whenever it suits the suits.

I only had to satisfy one of the criteria – not all three. But in their eyes I failed in all three – my wife is not my partner, my wife is not my realtive and Steve is not a member of my family.

Basically, it was same old, same old. Like social care law, it has this weird assumption that people exist in complete vacuums. Relationships are defined in the strangest, narrowest ways that bear no relation to real life.

I came unstuck several times because I dont speak the language. Hillingdon’s barrister kept saying; “I put it to you Mr Neary that you and your wife are estranged, with or without disharmony. Would you describe yourself as estranged without disharmony?” I wanted to say, that I have never used or thought in those terms ever in my life. All I could do was describe the relationships as it is but I could see that it didn’t in any way resemble the boxes I was meant to fit into.

I do not talk about or think about my relationship with my wife in the terms of the housing benefit regulations. i do not talk about or think about my relationship and life with Steven in the terms of the social care language and framing. And that is what is so dangerous about this stuff – you get pulled into it by people who have to see the world in and from that frame, even when it bears no resemblence to your world. I said at one point in the hearing that I wanted to present a narrative of my relationship, in my language, from my phenomonolgical experience but I wasn’t allowed to do that because my world was too alien to the housing benefit world. I started to talk about my strong sense of duty and responsibility to my family but stopped because as a concept, it couldn’t fit into their frame. I sounded pompous and laughably old fashioned. I tried to talk about the pain and shame I felt (feel) about chosing to care for my son over my wife but was stopped in my tracks. In that world, relationships are about having joint bank accounts – not about the emotional element of being two human beings in a relationship. I had an ironic forebearing of this a couple of weeks back. Steven had been asking for some photos from the old home and my wife brought a big selection over. She also brought a new photo album. But the album would only have held about a quarter of the photos. That’s what it felt like today – trying to fit my whole experience of life with my wife and Steven, into a very small album.

Halfway through the hearing, I had a strange, almost altered state moment – it certainly felt that I floated above the room and to be honest, I never quite came back to the room after it. But in that state, I heard three very clear statements:

* “I am so very very tired”
* “What the fuck are you doing here in this nonsense?”
* This has got nothing to do with either you or Steven”

From that point, the hearing seemed to have less and less to do with me or Steven but it felt like being in some sort of play – a drama that was being played out in which I had no role or connection. In exactly the same way that I’ve written about my social care experience being all about the self serving system and nothing about the clients, this had a similar feel. Bottom line – it didn’t feel like it had anything to do with the real life of people.

Coming home on the tube, other thoughts rose up. One came along in capital letters – “GET OUT”. Do not put any more energy into this misconstructed system. DO NOT ENGAGE WITH IT.

This is easier said than done, especially at this time when we need housing and a social care package. But there must be a way that a normal human being can have those things without engaging with this hideous system.

Perhaps I need to completely re-examine my values system. Being responsible to others and being accountable for my actions was something that was drummed into me from an early age. But in the world I was in today and the social care world that I’m in every day, that doesn’t even exist as a concept. The whole chaos that culminated in today’s tribunal started with the the council’s ultimatum to me to leave the marital home. The whole current mess with my furniture came about because they promised Steven social housing by 15th August and have now pulled the rug. But there isn’t even a sniff of accountability – it’s like the text is “we can do anything and the consequences are your responsibility”.

One other thought pops up in response to that question – “This is where the Steven Neary Foundation comes in”. I need to clarify that but one thing I do know about the Foundation is that it will be straight forward for people who yearn for things to be straight forward.

It must be possible.

19 thoughts on “The Tribunal”

  1. Hi Mark – what a horrible time. The legal aid reforms are so unjust, but they knew that when they instigated them. “Your life in their hands”. The balance of power needs urgently redressing in this country. I hope that the judge can find a way to make the Right Decision.

  2. excellent writing…full of passion ………Your love and dedication for your son Steven is for all to see………….Solidarity……….

    1. The bit I don’t get is the one about adult disabled people don’t count as part of the family. Yes, as adults they have rights, but as parents we are still rather stuck with the responsibilities.

      Unfortunately, judges have to deal with what is legal, not what makes sense, but I hope this one can see that this is ridiculous.

      1. Typically of the state its all about financial independence – nothing else matters to them. I agree though – there a big jump from Steven having his own income to not being part of my family. I can’t think of any part of any social security regulation that acknolwedges the dependency of an adult learning disabled person

  3. Three things shine like nuggets of gold from your account of today’s will-sapping, time-theiving, soul-destroying charade:
    1. Upper tier – things could yet go your way
    2. Your decency and humanity
    3. The Steven Neary Foundation
    Is there any way the judge could catch sight of your blog? After all, it’s important background and will help him make an informed decision.

  4. I had a brief interview with a social worker this week over something that didn’t matter very much – and had that same sense of disassociation as if we occupied parallel universes. Whatever I said had to fit into a set of assumptions that had very little to do with our lives. Even though it wasn’t of any great importance one is left feeling frustrated and uneasy. The strain of this appalling situation for you must be intolerable and very damaging.

    Treating responsible parents in this way has to stop. If we don’t count, then the Court of Protection ought to be a bit less remote. It can’t be in anyone’s interest to put such an enormous strain on those who are actually trying to deal with “best interests” as a reality, not a slogan.

  5. Oh mark I really hope the upper tier go in your favour fir yours and stevens sake please keep us posted thanks.

  6. I really think this should be read by the PM and his cabinet. Your words show the reality of his cuts so graphically and succinctly. And for crying out loud, since when was a wife not a relative? Who indeed uses phrases such as ” you and your wife are estranged, with or without disharmony”. I have no idea what that means and I am not exactly totally thick.
    If you have no objection, I am going to put a link to this edition on to both my web page and my twitter feed. It really has annoyed me.


    1. I don’t anyone who would know what ”you and your wife are estranged, with or without disharmony” outside the dark world of Hillington Council..

  7. I really understand the out of body experience in such meetings-with me its accompanied by urges to shout abuse/storm out/burst into tears-and like you I am an adult who would never act like that anywhere else.
    I think its their smugness that sends you over-the smugness, the power inbalance, their u turns never acknowledged,the way you are presented as stupid,unreasonable, greedy. They have never been inconsistent-you have just been too stupid to understand that whatever is being offered is the best possible thing.
    God forbid you ever show emotion-you will be dismissed as depressed/having “anger issues”,-you are probably causing some of the difficult behavior!

    Then again, if you try to stay totally calm and professional, you can be vilified as too cold and detached-your child’s behavior is probably largely your fault!.

    You are in with a good chance and we are all hoping for you. Keep shining a light on this-the more exposure it gets the less power they have.
    I thought your killer point is f they say you aren’t family, Stephen being over 18-you are an employed carer. Ok. So you can send them a bill? Hours? Conditions? Sick leave? Contract?

    1. There wasnt really any smugness Sally – in fact all three blokes were pretty likeable. I’ve thought about it a lot today and Im sure me floating away was because we were occupying such different planets. I couldn’t access their planet and they certainly couldnt find mine. Its a massive problem all over

      1. I’m glad they weren’t smug-Hilingdon council’s pronouncements can come over as smug when I’ve read them.
        Good luck next week

  8. “Would you describe yourself as estranged without disharmony?”

    This thought has just struck me on the definition of “estrangement” for benefit purposes…

    If your relative has died and you have no means to pay for a funeral (but there are other relatives who could pay) then in order to claim a funeral payment from the social fund you would need to prove that they had no contact and there was ‘something in the nature of mutual alienation’ in order for the family member to be accepted as “estranged” from the deceased…

    The same goes for 16-18 year olds wishing to claim income related benefits, they too have to prove disharmony in order to be accepted as being “estranged” from their parents…

    So why oh why does the same definition of “estranged” not have to proven between man and wife?

    It strikes me that the Secretary of State cannot have it both ways and the same definition should be applied to all situations – no disharmony = no estrangement!

  9. Hi Mark,
    I’m a student social worker. I wanted to say that I love your blog, and I think it is vitally important that it is heard loudly and widely. My last placement was in an adults team, and I spent a lot of it fighting with housing on behalf the understandably angry and confused adults I was working with. It seems as though for some reason housing departments have been populated with the walking talking scum of the earth, but I suspect that this is because a lot of ordinary, if not particularly intelligent or sensitive people have been put to work in the middle of a housing crisis everybody is attempting to ignore. Combined with insane managerialism and increasing privatization, populated by people who aren’t terribly bright and have largely switched off their humanity in order to survive, telling themselves whatever stories about their ‘clients’ get them to sleep at night. I’ve had law lectures by people describing cases where the burden of providing for a homeless family being passed to another council was described as a marvellous wonderful success for all concerned. However, I’ve also had lectures by people clearly fighting hard for the people they actually work for, passing their critical eye on to their students. I study alongside a lot of clearsighted and humane people, some of whom I’ve already watched score sneaky victories for the people they work for. I think (and hope) that there are good social workers out there, and I hope you find one of them eventually, and reach a point where you and Steven can live in unquestioned and unmolested contentment.

  10. Thank you Mark for so eloquently putting in to words the feelings that I experience as a carer for an adult son with autism and my mum with dementia.

    Our LA are doing a review of services for carers (mostly just lip service) and are looking at the effects of unpaid caring on mental health. Please can I print this out for the other carers to read at the meeting? Pass it on with comments as a reflection of my own experiences even?

    I feel that I’m too busy firefighting to be able to reflect enough to find my own voice in the battle. You join the dots and summarise it all so well.

    Please, keep on blogging. You are a beacon of moral sanity in a completely insane, topsy turvy world.


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