The government is discriminating against disabled benefit claimants by failing to install equipment at tribunal venues that would allow them to record what happens at their social security appeals, according to university researchers.
Leeds University’s International Disability Law Clinic (IDLC) has discovered that there are no social security tribunal venues across the whole of London that have installed recording equipment.
Such equipment allows disabled people who are unable to make their own notes to have a record of what was said during their appeal.
The figures were released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which also admitted – in the freedom of information response to questions from the law clinic – that it had failed to carry out any assessment of the impact on disabled people of failing to provide such equipment.
Discrimination law experts at IDLC said MoJ’s failings appeared to be a breach of the Equality Act 2010; article six of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to a fair hearing); and article 13 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (on access to justice).
IDLC, which is based in the university’s School of Law, said this disability discrimination lacked “any objective justification”.
MoJ told IDLC that of 161 hearing centres in England, Wales and Scotland, only 91 (56 per cent) have recording equipment.
The performance in England (recording equipment installed in 52 per cent of centres, or 63 out of 120) is far worse than that of both Scotland (68 per cent) and Wales (also 68 per cent).
MoJ also admitted that the cost of installing the equipment was only about £1,000 per centre, with upkeep likely to be just £15 a year.
The failings emerge after years of rising concerns about the fairness of the disability benefits system, and the number of claimants who are unfairly deprived by the government – and the actions of its private sector contractors – of financial support from benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payment (PIP).
An IDLC spokesperson said: “Many disabled people are unable – because of their impairment – to make a written record of what is said during a social security tribunal hearing.
“It is often vital that they have access to a record of what has been said during their hearing.”
The failure to allow recordings of these hearings “puts disabled people who are unable to keep a written note of their hearing at a serious disadvantage”, the spokesperson said.
Such claimants could be forced to travel to a more distant venue or buy their own expensive equipment and try to secure the permission of the tribunal judge to use it to record their hearing.
Some claimants may even pass up their right to attend their own hearing, which “is a right of fundamental importance”, said IDLC.
The disability law clinic is currently researching how the UK’s social security system complies with the government’s domestic and international obligations to disabled people.
Its research was backed by a national disabled people’s organisation, the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA).
Daniel Burden, SIA’s head of public affairs, said: “Given the high number of disputed assessments for PIP and ESA, it is unsurprising that disabled people feel it is essential to record tribunals.
“For spinal cord injured people with little or no hand dexterity, it is not possible for them to keep written notes.
“Audio recordings of tribunals are therefore extremely important and SIA is very concerned by the findings of this research.
“We hope that the Ministry of Justice will take swift action to remedy this situation and will ensure that disabled people are not treated unfavourably because of their impairment.”
A spokesperson for HM Courts and Tribunals Service refused to say how it justified so few tribunal hearing centres having the capacity to record social security hearings, including none in London.
She also refused to say why there had been no equality impact assessment, and whether the service accepted that it had discriminated against disabled people and breached the UN disability convention and the European Convention on Human Rights.
But she said in a statement: “We aim to provide services that people with disabilities can use independently but know that sometimes additional assistance may be required.
“Any request for a reasonable adjustment will be considered so that they can participate fully in hearings.
“We are looking at increasing the number of tribunals with recording facilities as part of our wider £1 billion court reform programme.”
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