DWP found to be arbitrarily preventing appeals
Benefit claimants have been unlawfully prevented from appealing decisions by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), judges have ruled.
It comes after the DWP appeals system was challenged by the Child Poverty Action Group.
Two claimants with serious mental health problems who were refused disability benefits were subsequently refused the right to appeal because they failed to ask for a review of the decision within a one-month time limit.
However three judges, who form the upper tribunal, found it was wrong for the DWP to refuse claimants the right to appeal if they took more than a month to ask for a review of the benefit decision.
Carla Clarke, the legal officer for Child Poverty Action Group, said it was “not only a vindication for our two clients, but it stands to provide justice for significant numbers of families wrongly denied the financial help to which they are entitled”.
It comes on top of a decision by the supreme court last week that the government was unlawfully charging fees of up to £1,200 for access to employment tribunals.
Internal reviews, called “mandatory reconsiderations”, are not subjected to the appeal process. Instead it is down to the DWP to decide whether to forward these claims for appeal.
In this case the DWP refused to change the decision or let a tribunal consider whether that was correct.
The judges found: “The reality is that many claimants will be vulnerable for reasons including issues relating to their mental health or learning disabilities. It is obvious that there is a high risk that many of them with good claims on the merits will miss time limits.
“This risk has been exacerbated over recent years by changes in the scope of legal aid and local authority and advice sector provision, and hence the reduction in the numbers of welfare rights officers and others who are readily available to assist claimants with their benefits claims and appeals.”
Many claimants will be vulnerable for reasons including issues relating to their mental health or learning disabilities
They concluded: “We are concerned with the situation where a claimant sends the secretary of state a request for a mandatory reconsideration to which the secretary of state responds by stating that the application is late and does not meet the criteria for extending time.
“We have concluded that as a matter of statutory interpretation a claimant in such circumstances has a statutory right of appeal to the first-tier tribunal.”
The Child Poverty Action Group said the decision would protect the appeal rights of the hundreds of thousands of benefit claimants who each year seek to challenge refusal of benefit.
A recent freedom of information request revealed the DWP has a target to uphold 80% of its original benefit decisions after the internal “mandatory reconsideration” reviews.
About 12% of employment and support allowance (work capability assessment) decisions are overturned at mandatory reconsideration, but the figure rises to 59% of those that make it to the tribunal stage.
Clarke added: “This decision ensures that even if the DWP thinks there is no good reason for their delay, it cannot prevent such individuals pursuing an appeal before an independent tribunal.
"To have found otherwise would have been to uphold a system where the decision-maker also acts as arbiter of whether an individual could challenge their decision or not – a clear conflict of interest and an affront to justice.”
The Department of Work and Pensions said: “We have received the tribunal’s decision and are considering the judgment.”