For my ninth story of injustice I am drawing on a case study furnished to the Bach Commission by the Zacchaeus (Z2K) Trust (The Trust).
Delay after delay after delay…
A client applied in 2013 to be assessed for the new disability benefit, Personal Independence Payment (PIP).
It took the Department of Work and Pensions over a year to assess her so that the Trust intervened in a case that had been brought by two other claimants for judicial review of the Department’s assessment process. This was found to be unlawful but no compensation was awarded to the claimants because the High Court possessed no power to do so.
In ruling that delays of 14 months and ten months were not merely unacceptable (as was conceded) but also unlawful the judge said:
Both claimants’ cases called for expeditious consideration. They each suffered from significant disabilities (as set out above). They were each properly to be regarded as amongst the most vulnerable in society.
The first claimant was classified as a person requiring additional support early on in the process of her claim. Yet the system then in operation required her to travel some distance to a face to face assessment on two separate occasions when she had explained her difficulty in travelling. It took more than one year after she initially contacted DWP for sufficient details to be obtained over the telephone to enable her claim to be considered and determined.
For the second claimant similar considerations, although less extreme, applied from the moment of claim until the determination some ten months later.
In that case the Trust had produced evidence of delays in processing PIP claims and the impact that this had had on individual claimants. It produced six case studies, in which the shortest time for determination was seven months and one claimant was still waiting for determination after 12 months. The court was told that it is the impact of the delay in processing the applications which has been devastating for some of the most vulnerable people in society. For all new claims those who are waiting have been without access to a needs based benefit for an extended period of time and, on some occasions, without any benefit at all. That impact is not resolved by backdating the award because the claimants had undergone mental, physical and financial hardship which cannot be adequately remedied by a financial payment.
One of the case studies shown to the court by the Trust involved LS, a single mother with three adult children (aged 18, 20 and 29 years), who was unable to work due to disability. She made her application for PIP in October 2013. No award was made until 31st October 2014. During the time of processing the PIP application, LS was subjected to the benefit cap and fell into rent arrears of between £7,000-8,000. She was repeatedly threatened with homelessness which caused her depression and anxiety. Her physical health suffered.
Her landlord refused to repair the property whilst she was in arrears and she was forced to use her employment & support allowance (ESA) to fix her kitchen ceiling which had fallen in due to damp. She went without food and electricity and borrowed regularly from friends to pay her utility bills making informal repayment agreements which she has found stressful. She remains in an anxious state and has developed paranoia at being threatened with homelessness again. She has become increasingly dependent on her children.
The Trust asked the Department for compensation and when they refused it lodged a complaint in January 2015. It then took over a year to exhaust the Department’s 2-stage complaints process.
In February 2016, as the rules require, the Trust applied for the refusal of the complaint to be reviewed, because this is a gatekeeping stage that now has to be gone through before an application to the Ombudsman. In June 2016 the Trust was told that it will be another nine months before that review will be completed.
That means the complaints process will have taken well over two years before the Trust can even apply to the Ombudsman to investigate the maladministration.
“This shows that the process is not intended to drive improvement.”
The Zacchaeus Trust also told the Bach Commission:
Our clients experience difficulty in understanding their rights which is why they cannot enforce them. We recently saw a client who had received a letter from the housing benefit department purporting to explain her entitlement which was 83 pages long. Even our trained advisers struggled to understand what was being said. We also regularly see clients who have received notification from the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) or their local authority that their benefits have been withdrawn or suspended without any explanation. They find it too difficult to negotiate past the gatekeeping that these departments protect themselves with so they cannot redress the problem as they don’t know what it is.
Our clients also do not have computers and suffer from language or literacy or mental health or other disability difficulties. We struggle to find interpreters who can help those with language difficulties as we cannot afford to pay fees.
Those who wish to challenge health assessments made by DWP cannot obtain medical reports without paying a fee which they cannot afford.
The State should work with the advice sector on improved processes. At present most departments’ response to complaints about denial of rights is to point to a complaints procedure instead of thinking about getting it right first time.
And then it takes two years to navigate the complaints procedure before one can even apply to the Ombudsman.
Is this justice?
 See C & Anor, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions & Anor  EWHC 1607 (Admin).