The appeal court has ordered a second inquest into a disabled woman’s suicide so that the “consequences” of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) stopping the benefits of disabled people who rely on social security can be examined in public.
Three appeal court judges ruled last Friday that it was “in the interests of justice” for there to be another inquest into the death of Jodey Whiting, a 42-year-old mother-of-nine and grandmother, from Stockton-on-Tees.
Her mother, Joy Dove, has spent six years fighting for justice for her daughter since she took her own life in February 2017, 15 days after her employment and support allowance (ESA) was wrongly stopped by DWP for missing a work capability assessment.
She had been a long-time claimant of incapacity benefit, and then ESA, and DWP and its assessors had previously noted the severity of her mental distress, and the risk of harm if she was found fit for work, and were aware of her long history of suicidal thoughts.
But an inquest in May 2017 failed to examine DWP’s role in her death or take evidence from any DWP witnesses, and it lasted just 37 minutes.
There was no criticism of DWP by the coroner even though Jodey’s mother had told the inquest that she blamed the department for her daughter’s death, her sister Donna had said that having her benefits stopped had been a “triggering factor” in Jodey taking her own life, and Jodey’s daughter Emma had blamed DWP for her mum’s death.
Joy Dove told Disability News Service (DNS) this week that she would have continued with the legal fight even if it had taken 10 years.
Now she is looking forward to giving evidence at the second inquest, which is likely to take place in Middlesbrough later this year.
She said: “They can hear it from my point of view as her mother, and how it devastated the family. I just want to say my piece.”
She also wants to see DWP and Maximus – the company responsible for carrying out the work capability assessment process – give evidence.
She said: “This is the main thing. This is what this is all about. It was them who were wrong so that’s why they need to be part of it.
“They had everything there in writing from 2014, and they just ignored everything.”
She said the appeal court judgment was a victory not just for Jodey’s family but for all the families mourning relatives whose deaths have been linked to DWP’s actions and for “others still on the receiving end of awful treatment by the DWP”.
And she insisted that she would continue to campaign for a public inquiry into all deaths that have been linked to DWP’s actions.
After she was told by her solicitors that she had won her legal case, she drove with her son Jamie to the cemetery where Jodey is buried and looked at the picture of her daughter on her gravestone and said: “Jodey, we have got justice for you.”
She said: “I cried. I was just happy we had got justice for her.”
Since the judgment was released, Joy Dove cannot go anywhere in Norton, the market town where she lives, without being stopped – in the street, in shops – to be congratulated on her legal victory.
She has been campaigning for justice for her daughter since approaching the local newspaper, the Gazette, just days after Jodey’s death.
She later wrote to the prime minister, Theresa May, to ask for a meeting, but her request was dismissed by her staff because of “the tremendous pressures of her diary”.
She launched a Facebook campaign and a “Justice for Jodey” petition, and she began to support calls for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to DWP.
She also spoke at a Daily Mirror fringe event at the Labour party conference in 2019 and wrote a book, A Mother’s Job, with authors Ann and Joe Cusack, which followed her journey from “passive and easygoing” great-grandmother to fierce campaigner.
In November 2020, she heard that the solicitor general, Michael Ellis, had granted permission for her to ask the high court to order a second inquest into her daughter’s death.
But the high court rejected her request for a second inquest in September 2021, despite two key pieces of new evidence.
The first piece of evidence was a report by the Independent Case Examiner, which concluded in February 2019 that DWP failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to her suicide.
The second piece of evidence – which was crucial in persuading the Court of Appeal to overturn the high court judgment and order a second inquest – was a report by psychiatrist Dr Trevor Turner, who said Jodey’s mental state was likely to have been “substantially affected” by DWP’s actions.
In last week’s judgment, Lady Justice Whipple – one of three judges who heard the appeal – said it was “in the interests of justice that Mrs Dove and her family should have the opportunity to invite a coroner, at a fresh inquest, to make a finding of fact that the Department’s actions contributed to Jodey’s deteriorating mental health”.
She said the extent to which DWP’s actions “contributed to Jodey’s mental health is a matter of real significance to Mrs Dove and her family” and it is “reasonable for them to press for that matter to be investigated as part of the inquest into Jodey’s death”.
And she said there was also a “wider public interest” in the coroner considering what caused Jodey’s mental health to deteriorate.
She said, in the written judgment: “After all, the Department deals with very many people who are vulnerable and dependent on benefits to survive, and the consequences of terminating benefit payments to such people should be examined in public, where it can be followed and reported on by others who might be interested in it.”
She said it was possible that the coroner at the second inquest might consider writing a prevention of future deaths report to DWP “in light of the fact that Jodey’s benefits were cut off abruptly, in error, as we now know”.
She said: “If the coroner concluded that the error had contributed in any way, direct or indirect to Jodey’s death, that would be a serious matter to which the Department should be alerted, in order that remedial steps can be taken.”
The three Court of Appeal judges ruled unanimously that there should be a second inquest.
But they ruled against the argument that DWP had owed Jodey a legal obligation to protect her right to life under the Human Rights Act, although they said this was “not to ignore the multiple failings on the part of the Department”.
A DWP spokesperson said this week: “Our sincere condolences remain with Ms Whiting’s family.
“DWP is ready to assist the new coroner with their investigation.
“We cannot comment on active legal proceedings.”
But Merry Varney, Joy Dove’s solicitor, from Leigh Day, said: “Today’s unanimous ruling from the Court of Appeal means finally Joy and her family have the opportunity for the role of shocking failings by the DWP in the death of much-loved Jodey to be publicly investigated.
“The Court of Appeal has rightly underlined the importance of this not just to Jodey’s family, but to the wider public.
“Inquests play a vital role in exposing unsafe practices and risks to future lives, and today’s judgement, rejecting arguments made by the coroner and overturning the decision of the high court, makes it abundantly clear that coroners can and indeed sometimes should be investigating more than the immediate cause of death regardless of whether the right to life is engaged.”
Picture: Joy Dove pictured last year by DNS at her daughter’s grave
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