A recent case dealt with by Disability Rights UK’s Tribunal Support Unit highlights several of the current issues affecting disabled benefit claimants.
Our client was a woman who has long-term depression and anxiety. Despite health problems she had been in work for much of her life, but experienced several periods when her condition worsened and she was forced to claim benefits for a while. Her current period of ill-health had lasted a couple of years, during which she had claimed ESA, but she was starting to feel better and had some hopes of being able to return to work in the not too distant future, when she was called in for a work capability assessment (WCA).
The ATOS healthcare professional (HCP) who examined her clearly had little or no experience of dealing with mental health issues. The HCP did assess her as scoring 6 points for difficulties in coping with social engagement, but gave her no other points, meaning she had her ESA withdrawn. This was despite having provided a fairly clear and full account of the difficulties she faced on a day to day basis, most of which was noted in the examination report but virtually ignored in assigning points.
Our client appealed, and was fortunate enough to have the support of her GP, who provided her with a detailed report that dealt with all the areas where her condition was relevant to the descriptors. Despite this clear evidence, the DWP’s reconsideration of the case simply concluded that the HCP’s report was detailed and should be accepted.
The appeal took a year to come to hearing. There was nothing unusual or complicated about the case, the delay was simply down to the appeals system creaking under the pressure of so many appeals – most of them ESA appeals. In 2010/11 there were 179,000 ESA/IB appeals alone. Eventually the case was listed, but at this point our client ran into another problem faced by many appellants – trying to find a representative.
She approached her local CAB but although they do appeals, they were unable to provide a rep in this case due to being over-stretched and lacking the resources. Luckily, the volunteer adviser who dealt with the case knew of the Tribunal Support Unit and emailed us, not expecting that we would be able to help, but not willing to simply turn the client away without any help.
We were able to take the case on, and met the client at the CAB. It was quickly clear that the client had a good case, she would struggle with most of the activities in the mental functions section of the WCA, and seemed to be a long way from being ready to go back to work. We arranged to meet at the tribunal, although I felt that she might not be able to face the hearing even with her husband’s support.
Our client made it to the hearing, and after a quick chat in the waiting room, we went in to the tribunal room. The hearing lasted less than five minutes – the tribunal judge told us as soon as we sat down that having read the papers it was obvious she should score more than 15 points, and that they had decided to award 9 points for our client’s difficulties going out alone. So the client went home knowing she had got her full ESA back, including arrears.
Sadly, there is nothing to set this case apart from thousands of others. The HCP seemed to know little or nothing about the health condition, despite the Government suggesting it has accepted all of the WCA review recommendations including on mental health. The client explained how her condition affected her, but the HCP awarded points that bore little relation to the problems experienced by the client. The DWP “reconsidered” the decision, but ignored the detailed opinion of the GP in favour of a report based on a 30 minute interview that didn’t reflect most of what the HCP was told. What was frankly a run of the mill case took a year to come to hearing and the client struggled to find a rep.
None of this would be at all unfamiliar to any welfare rights adviser. We’ve all seen similar cases time after time, and many of the problems are likely to get worse. There is no sign that the standard of WCA examinations is improving – any decline in the number of successful appeals is most likely due to changes to the points system designed to make it harder to qualify for benefit. The Government is going to force claimants to ask for a reconsideration before they can appeal – slowing the process down even further with no reason to think the standard of decisions will improve. Planned cuts to Legal Aid and Council cuts will make it even harder to find representation – up to half the CABx in the country are apparently at risk of closure.
This case worked out happily for the client, although her health suffered during the year she was waiting. She can now hope to start moving in the right direction again. For many other claimants things don’t look so positive, and things are worryingly likely to get worse before they get any better.