Links between the decision of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to stop the benefits of a disabled woman and her subsequent suicide should be considered by a fresh inquest, the Court of Appeal has heard.
The court was hearing the latest attempt by Joy Dove* to persuade the courts to order a second inquest into the death of her daughter, Jodey Whiting, in February 2017.
The 42-year-old mother-of-nine and grandmother, from Stockton-on-Tees, took her own life 15 days after her employment and support allowance was wrongly stopped by DWP for missing a work capability assessment.
An inquest in 2017 failed to examine DWP’s role in her death or take evidence from any DWP witnesses, and there was no criticism of DWP by the coroner.
Dove (pictured) has spent years fighting for a second inquest that would investigate the impact of DWP’s failings on her daughter.
She was in court this week with her son Jamie to listen to the appeal.
Before the hearing started, there was a silent vigil to remember Jodey Whiting outside the Royal Courts of Justice, organised by Disabled People Against Cuts, and supported by Deaths by Welfare and WinVisible.
Jeremy Hyam, representing Dove, told the panel of three judges that new evidence obtained since the first inquest – which lasted just 37 minutes – “changes the picture completely”.
He pointed to a report by the Independent Case Examiner (ICE), which found in February 2019 that DWP failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to Jodey Whiting’s suicide, despite her long history of mental distress and suicidal ideation.
He said: “The overall cumulative effect of those multiple failures was rightly described [by one of the high court judges who rejected the original bid for a second inquest] as shocking, as undoubtedly they are.”
Lord Justice Lewis, one of the three appeal court judges, told Hyam: “I read it again this morning; it’s sad and tragic reading with the missed opportunities.”
He said later that many people – although he would not comment himself – would view DWP’s failings in the case as “reprehensible”.
Hyam also highlighted a report by psychiatrist Dr Trevor Turner, a former vice-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which said Jodey Whiting’s mental state was likely to have been “substantially affected” by DWP’s decision to remove her out-of-work benefits for missing a work capability assessment she had not known about.
He said Turner had concluded that there was “likely to have been a causal link between the DWP failings outlined in the enclosed ICE report and Jodie’s state of mind immediately before her death”.
Hyam said that a second inquest should “seek out and record as many of the facts concerning this death” as necessary.
He added: “The fact of causal relationship between the cessation of benefits and death is a fact that should be recorded [by an inquest] in the public interest.”
He also mentioned the case of Michael O’Sullivan, who took his own life in September 2013.
Coroner Mary Hassell subsequently concluded through a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report that “the intense anxiety that triggered his suicide” was caused by his being found fit for work by DWP.
Hyam said that this PFD report showed the “legitimate public interest” and “real value” in a coroner bringing such a case to the attention of the public, and DWP.
He argued that there was a need for a fresh inquest into Jodey Whiting’s suicide so that somebody from DWP could “speak to what the policies and practices are at DWP” and show whether the department had dealt with the failings highlighted by the ICE report.
He said: “It is a perfectly proper matter to investigate if [DWP’s decision to stop her benefits] was the trigger event that formulated her intention to take her own life.”
Jonathan Dixey, representing DWP, said the work and pensions secretary at the time had accepted the criticisms made in the ICE report in 2019, and accepted that these failures “were serious and should not have occurred”.
If the court of appeal decides that there should now be a second inquest under article two – the right to life – of the European Convention on Human Rights, it will look at wider circumstances around Jodey Whiting’s death than if it orders a non-article two second inquest.
Dixey said DWP did not support or oppose the request for a fresh non-article two inquest, and he focused his arguments instead on DWP’s duties under article two.
He argued that DWP did not have a “general obligation” under article two to prevent a person taking their own life, even if it knew or ought to have known there was a “real and immediate risk” of this happening.
He also suggested that, in this case, it did not have an “operational duty” under article two, which would have obliged it to take reasonable steps to prevent her suicide if the withdrawal of her benefits had been seen as an “inherent dangerous activity”.
He said no previous court case had shown that DWP had such a duty “to take steps to avert a real and immediate risk of a benefit claimant taking their own life whilst living in the community”.
He suggested that Jodey Whiting had not been “vulnerable” enough for such a duty to apply, despite her “history of self-harm and suicide attempts”.
But Hyam told the court that if there was “total cessation of benefits for a highly vulnerable person”, it was “reasonably foreseeable to the department that that may have dire consequences for the individual and put them in a state of desperation”.
He said: “Because of the shocking failures, [Jodey Whiting] was pushed into a mental state of total desperation, such that she took the ultimate step and took her own life.”
Jonathan Hough, representing Jo Wharton, the Teesside and Hartlepool assistant coroner who heard the original inquest into Jodey Whiting’s death, said it was “not her intention to defend any of the clear, serious and admitted failings of DWP staff”.
He said Wharton believed the inquest she carried out in 2017 “was sufficient” to examine “the means by which Jodey died”.
Although it was a “brief hearing… that isn’t unusual for an inquest into a death by suicide, where the medical causes of death by suicidal intent are tragically clear”.
The Court of Appeal has reserved its judgment to a future date.
Meanwhile, many disabled activists have paid tribute to welfare rights expert Nick Dilworth, who died this week.
Rick Burgess, from Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), who worked with Dilworth on the first WOW petition campaign, described him as “a good, kind, and principled ally of disabled people and claimants” who “helped a great many people defend themselves against the DWP”.
Paula Peters, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said Dilworth was “a lovely person, incredibly knowledgeable”, while his social security knowledge expertise were “second to none”. She said he was a “huge loss to the disability movement”.
As well as the countless disabled people he helped, Dilworth supported the family of Michael O’Sullivan for many years in their ongoing battle for justice.
Last year, Disability News Service reported how he helped the O’Sullivan family win a tribunal ruling that had once again highlighted DWP’s “cruelty”.
Dilworth had dismantled DWP’s argument in the tribunal hearing, arguing that it was neither legally nor morally right for DWP to have caused Michael O’Sullivan’s death and then attempt to retrieve benefits it had wrongly awarded him.
He had said afterwards that the ruling was a “small but significant development” in an “otherwise hugely complex and protracted case”, and that the number of DWP mistakes he and the family had uncovered in the case was “astonishing”.
*Dove has written A Mother’s Job, with authors Ann and Joe Cusack, which describes her journey from “passive and easygoing” great-grandmother to fierce campaigner, and how Jodey took her own life in despair at DWP’s decision to remove the support she relied on
Picture: Joy Dove at the vigil outside the court before the appeal began. Photograph by Leigh Day Solicitors
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