Fresh evidence shows that the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were a “central cause” of the death of a disabled women who took her own life after her benefits were wrongly removed, the high court heard this week.
The court has been asked to order a second inquest into the death of Jodey Whiting in February 2017.
Whiting, a mother-of-nine and grandmother from Stockton-on-Tees, took her own life in February 2017, 15 days after her employment and support allowance (ESA) was mistakenly stopped for missing a face-to-face work capability assessment.
But the original inquest into her death lasted just 37 minutes and did not investigate DWP’s role in her death.
This week, the high court has been considering a request by Whiting’s mother, Joy Dove, for a second inquest that would examine how DWP contributed to or even caused her daughter’s death.
Dove’s barrister, Jesse Nicholls, told the court that fresh evidence had emerged since 2017 which “overwhelmingly leads to the conclusion that the substantial truth” about how she died had not been revealed at the first inquest.
He said that evidence showed that DWP had been “a central cause of her death”, but that that “substantial truth” was not investigated at the first inquest.
He said that a report by the Independent Case Examiner, which followed a complaint lodged by Dove and was not published until after the inquest, had been “highly critical” of DWP’s conduct, and revealed “multiple breaches of procedures, flaws in decision-making and missed opportunities to consider Miss Whiting’s claim appropriately prior to the termination of her ESA”.
And he said a report by a consultant psychiatrist, commissioned after the inquest, concluded that there was “likely to have been a causal link between the DWP failings outlined in the ICE report and Jodey’s state of mind before her death”.
Nicholls said DWP was aware that Whiting had a history of suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts, had placed a “red flag” on its system to alert its staff to this “vulnerability”, and had also been aware that she had been referred to the community mental health team just months earlier for intensive treatment for suicidal thoughts.
As early as 2012, DWP’s assessment contractor Atos – later replaced by the US outsourcing giant Maximus – had concluded that she would be at risk if she was found fit for work or asked to carry out work-related activity.
Two years later, Whiting had written in an ESA questionnaire: “Most days I want to kill myself. If my doctor doesn’t get the pain under control I plan to kill myself.”
And in October 2016, she had written in a new ESA questionnaire: “Suicidal thoughts a lot of the time, I couldn’t cope with work or looking for work.”
But Nicholls said: “Her benefits were terminated, she felt unable to cope and she killed herself. And the DWP had been told by her of that risk.”
He said the inquest had not investigated DWP’s role in Jodey Whiting’s death “in any way”.
Jonathan Hough, representing the Teesside and Hartlepool coroner, said it had not been the coroner’s intention to “defend the clear multiple and admitted failures of DWP staff”, but that she had held a “proper and lawful inquest” that had investigated “the means by which Miss Whiting had died”, which was “sufficient” to discharge her responsibility.
He said the coroner had “treated Miss Whiting’s family with respect and sensitivity” and had mentioned in her summing up that she had had her ESA claim turned down and that that had had an impact on her.
Hough said that a fresh inquest would not “magically be able to psycho-analyse” what was the critical factor in her decision to take her own life.
He said it was “unquestionable” that the failings of DWP staff were serious but that did not mean that a second inquest was needed.
Nicholls said that a second inquest would provide Jodey Whiting’s family and the wider public with an “understanding of the facts of her death” and provide the family with “catharsis”.
He said it would also allow “public lesson-learning to take place”.
Lord Justice Warby said the court would reserve its decision to a future date, but he said that he and his two fellow judges knew that it was “an important case” and were “very conscious of the importance of the legal issues, but also the personal issues”.
Dove, who is represented by solicitor Merry Varney, a partner at law firm Leigh Day, sat alone at the back of the court throughout the two-day hearing.
She spoke afterwards of the frustration of not being able to give oral evidence during the hearing, which meant she had been unable to tell the three judges how DWP’s decision-makers had stopped her daughter’s benefits “without seeing her face”.
She told Disability News Service that this had made her daughter an “invisible woman”.
She said: “I wanted to say my piece but obviously I can’t say anything until the second inquest.”
Dove said she became tearful and had to “keep fighting to stop myself breaking down”, while listening to her barrister describe the events that led to her daughter’s death.
Dove, who was joined in court yesterday (Wednesday) by Jodey’s brother Jamie, said she was pleased that the judges had been fair in the way they had dealt with the evidence and asked their questions.
Now she is prepared to wait for weeks, or even months, for the three judges to deliver their ruling.
She said: “If it takes a long time to get a verdict I won’t mind, as long as it’s the right one.”
Even if she loses the case, she said, she will continue fighting.
She said she wants to “get some closure for Jodey where she has done something for other people to help change the system”.
But she added: “I can’t imagine ever coming to a stop fighting for my daughter. I feel as if I have to do this.”
While she was in London, she stayed at a hotel directly opposite DWP’s Whitehall headquarters.
She told DNS before the hearing that she hoped DWP staff and ministers would be able to see her.
She said: “I wanted to be here. I’m not bothered about them. I hope they can see me.”
Picture: Joy Dove outside DWP’s headquarters this week
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