Alfred is a 73 year-old man who lives with his son, who has Asperger’s syndrome. His son acts as Alfred’s carer and they are supported by housing and other benefits. Between July 2017 and May 2019, Croydon council issued multiple notices claiming that it had overpaid housing benefit to him and that he therefore owed them money. The first notice said he owed them £2,000 and this eventually increased over time to £14,000, causing him considerable stress and alarm.

Alfred was in regular contact with the council to discuss the notices and went to Citizens Advice for help. They wrote letters on his behalf asking for an explanation of why the council thought it had overpaid, but he received no reply. He asked the council for a face-to-face interview because he couldn’t read their emails due to the fact that he was waiting for cataract surgery. They ignored him.

The confusion centred around two withdrawals that Alfred made from a private pension (which is disregarded for housing benefit purposes). The money was used by him to settle some debts, but the council considered it first to be income and then capital, issuing six separate overpayment notices, all containing different amounts and explanations.

Eventually, at the end of 2018, Alfred submitted a complaint to the council which was examined by a Benefits Assessment Officer. The findings were sent to the wrong email address and Alfred was left with no conclusion. In February 2019, the council issued a “final” decision which was then followed in May by yet another notice saying he owed almost £14,000.

Alfred appealed against the decision and the first hearing took place in March 2020. Despite the complexity of the case, nobody showed up to represent Croydon Council and it was adjourned. Alfred came to Advocate to help him find a barrister to unravel the mess and help him make sense of all the conflicting information. We found Matt Lewin from Cornerstone Barristers to take on the case and represent him at the second hearing. He drafted an appeal asking the Council to reconsider its approach to the overpayment and to recalculate it based on the correct figures and the law.

Croydon Council decided that not only did Alfred not owe them any money, but they in fact, owed him £6,000.

Barrister Matt Lewin said:

“It was an honour to represent Alfred and to achieve such a fantastic outcome together. His persistence in seeking a proper answer and his courage in taking on an appeal in a formidably complex area of law was what made the difference. My job was to bring all the strands of the case together at the very end. After the appeal had been allowed, Alfred donated a significant sum from his back-payment to a charity of my choosing. I was genuinely moved and it is a gesture I will remember for the rest of my time at the Bar.”

Alfred said:

“At the second hearing they capitulated within three minutes, wrote off the debt, gave me back £6,000 and reinstated further benefits. Too late at 73 years of age, since I had already lost my home and both myself and son were homeless.

I feel as if I had been beaten up by this Local Authority. Without the help of Matt Lewin and Advocate, who laid out my case in clear and concise date order, I would have been steamrollered. I believe this was the first time they understood the weakness of their own case. Matt’s insight was decisive.

The Local Authority have said they will help me find a new home, so at 73 years of age, I begin again.”