A court has ruled that work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith (pictured) was “unreasonable”, “irrational” and acted “unlawfully” by delaying payments of his new disability benefit to two disabled people.
The high court said the delays of up to 13 months in payment of personal independence payment (PIP) – which is gradually replacing working-age disability living allowance (DLA) – were not only “unacceptable”, but “unlawful”.
It is not yet clear whether thousands of disabled people whose PIP claims were delayed could now be in line for compensation from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
But there was disappointment that the judge decided against treating the claimants as test cases. And she found that the delays had not breached their human rights.
The case involved two claimants, known as C and W.
C applied for PIP on in September 2013, but did not receive a decision until October 2014, while W had to wait from February 2014 until December 2014.
The court heard at a two-day hearing last month that they and others had experienced desperate financial struggles and had been forced to borrow from friends or turn to loan sharks and food banks.
C said: “The delay had a massive impact on my life and during that whole time when I was waiting I felt completely isolated.
“While my 13-month wait came to an end, thousands of people have not had the same luck.
“It is vital that the government makes sure that everyone affected in the past gets help and also that the system is fit for purpose before it is rolled out further.”
Disability News Service (DNS) first began reporting on delays and backlogs in the system in late 2013.
In January this year, one disabled woman told DNS how she had been forced to wait more than 14 months to be assessed for PIP.
Government figures released the same month showed that ministers had broken their high-profile promise to slash all PIP waiting-times to less than four months by the end of 2014.
Although the average waiting-time for a PIP assessment had fallen from 30 weeks to 14 weeks, the figures suggested that, by the end of 2014, nearly 60,000 claimants had been waiting longer than 16 weeks to be assessed.
By the end of March 2015, according to new figures published in advance of last month’s court hearing, nearly 23,000 disabled people had been waiting longer than 20 weeks for their new PIP claim to be decided, down from 41,000 in January 2015.
Of those 23,000, more than 3,000 had been waiting longer than a year.
Lawyers from Irwin Mitchell, who represented C and W, are now calling on DWP to delay the planned rollout of PIP to nearly 1.5 million DLA recipients from October, and to set up a compensation scheme for the thousands of disabled people affected.
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “We applaud the decision of the court to uphold the judicial review.
“We believe this is a common sense decision that will allow the current problems with PIP where, by DWP’s own admission, tens of thousands of disabled people claiming PIP are having to wait over five months for a decision, to be sorted out before the rollout to existing DLA recipients begins.”
Anne-Marie Irwin, the lawyer who led the two cases, said: “While this case related to two specific clients, it is vital that the other thousands of people who have experienced delays are not forgotten.
“We are now hoping to begin discussions with the DWP to establish a scheme to ensure anyone who experienced a delay which could be deemed unlawful is able to receive some form of effective redress without the need to take court action.”
One of Irwin Mitchell’s previous clients is Suki Mann, from Hampshire, who has chronic pain due to nerve damage, and has a 10-year-old son.
She cannot work, and her impairment means she has had to pay for taxis to travel, including to numerous hospital appointments, has to follow a particular diet, and needs special clothing, as well as incurring extra heating costs to keep her warm and free from infection.
She applied for PIP in December 2013, but faced a nine-month wait for the result of her claim, and in the meantime fell into significant credit card debt.
She said: “Being unable to work has had a massive impact on our lives and the delays in PIP just intensified the worst aspects of it.
“Our debts mounted up and there were days when I genuinely worried if we would be able to afford to eat.
“My experience with the PIP process was a nightmare and while I finally got my application processed, I can only hope that the situation improves so no one faces what we’ve been through. It has been horrific.”
Ugo Hayter, from law firm Leigh Day, who represented the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, which campaigns against unfairness in the legal and benefits systems and intervened in the case, said: “The government continued to roll out these benefits despite knowing that there was a huge backlog, no transitional arrangements in place and no effective way to complain about the delays.”