The government’s continuing failure to allow benefit appeals to be heard via video conferencing is discriminating against disabled claimants, say welfare rights experts.
Many disabled people are being forced to ask for their tribunals to be postponed, because they are only being offered a telephone hearing, says one disabled people’s organisation.
The tribunal system is not currently running face-to-face hearings because of the pandemic crisis, with judges instead deciding cases on documents alone or by holding a telephone hearing.
Concerns about the temporary system that is replacing face-to-face hearings have been raised by Disability Cambridgeshire, a user-led organisation which provides advice and information to disabled people.
Disability Cambridgeshire says that telephone hearings – which involve a judge and two experts speaking on the phone to the disabled person making the appeal – can cause huge difficulty for the claimant.
It has had to seek adjournments for all but one of the personal independence payment (PIP) appeals it has been helping with since the coronavirus lockdown in March, because its advisers were not confident their disabled clients would be dealt with fairly if they had a telephone hearing.
The adjournment delay means they will be forced to cope without the benefits they are entitled to for many more months.
Video hearings, for example using the Zoom platform, are likely to be more accessible for many disabled people, including those with hearing impairments, learning difficulties or difficulties with concentration.
The Zoom platform also has the facility for the claimant and their adviser to speak confidentially during a break.
Judith Margolis, chair of Disability Cambridgeshire, said: “For many of our clients, particularly those with learning disabilities or mental health issues, it is almost impossible to sit on the telephone, sometimes for half an hour, and try to understand what is going on.
“It is incredibly difficult, particularly for those whose cases are not straightforward.”
She fears that many disabled people will be forced into seeking cash from a loan shark while they await their tribunal because of the financial problems caused by the temporary loss of benefits.
She is also frustrated that the government appears to have failed to consult on the changes with disabled people and their organisations.
Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser for Disability Rights UK, said: “It’s understandable that face-to-face appeal hearings are not currently possible due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“But the informed choice as to whether an appeal is heard on paper, by telephone or by video must be that of the disabled person and not overridden by the tribunals service.
“Some people who experience severe social anxiety may prefer a telephone hearing.
“But for many others, who say have a learning disability or a mental health issue or need the advice and support of a representative, telephone hearings can never be just or fair.
“It is wrong for the tribunals service to dictate that in practice PIP video hearings are unavailable.
“Most PIP appeals are upheld due to the claimant’s own verbal evidence. It is discriminatory to deny someone the ability to effectively answer questions and present their case.”
The government and the judiciary have given a series of contrasting and confusing statements and responses over the last fortnight in response to the concerns raised by Disability Cambridgeshire.
Asked by Disability News Service (DNS) why the system was not currently offering video hearings, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) insisted that “thousands” of remote hearings had “kept the justice system running” during the pandemic.
An HMCTS spokesperson said claimants were being contacted before their remote hearing and were “asked if they need extra support such as video and a judge will then ultimately decide the best way to proceed in their interests”.
But a document published by the Judicial Office last week on how judges are handling social security and other appeals in the Social Entitlement Chamber’s first-tier tribunal makes no mention of video hearings in relation to social security cases.
The document says social security appeals not decided by a judge solely on the documents before her “will probably take place via a telephone hearing”.
The Judicial Office – which supports judges – told DNS that video hearings were not currently available for social security appeals, although a spokesperson later said that some hearings were being carried out by video, but only as part of testing to introduce them more widely.
He said: “Appellants can’t request a video hearing at this stage but the tribunal consider which cases might be appropriate for doing a hearing by video as part of the testing.”
Disability Cambridgeshire itself has asked the tribunal service to allow benefit appeal tribunals to take place using video, but it has been told there were no such plans at present.
Further contradiction and confusion came from Chris Philp (pictured), the junior minister for immigration compliance and the courts, in response to a letter written by Labour MP Daniel Zeichner on behalf of Disability Cambridgeshire.
In direct contradiction of the Judicial Office, Philp claims in the letter: “Judges will consider requests for reasonable adjustments to enable disabled appellants to access and fully participate in virtual hearings.
“If [Disability Cambridgeshire have] any clients who would benefit from having their appeal heard by video then [Margolis] can support them in making a formal request to the tribunal, explaining why this is needed and providing any supporting information or documents that can be passed to a Judge to consider.”
In response to this comment from the minister, and despite originally claiming that appellants “can’t request a video hearing at this stage”, the Judicial Office spokesperson said: “Ministry of Justice are correct that submissions can be made to a judge for him or her to consider.”
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
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