Plans to scrap in-person tribunals and remove expert panel members risk skewing the system further against disabled claimants
The government could bring in radical changes to the benefit appeal process, including a shift away from “in-person” hearings, with judges instead making many decisions based solely on written evidence, telephone calls or video conference. The proposed changes – which are open to consultation until the end of this month – are part of a wider bid to digitise the justice system, but a range of social security tribunals could be the first services to be moved online.
Claimants wishing to appeal against a benefit decision now do so either through paper submissions or by physically attending a tribunal. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) says that non-physical appeals will only be done where appropriate and that support will be put in place to assist claimants to use the new digital system, including access to paper channels for those who aren’t able to go online. But disability advocates fear that a move from in-person hearings could result in fewer appeals being upheld.
“We get 90% success when the appeal’s in person. On paper, even with us involved, it’s barely 50% success,” says Michelle Cardno, founder and lawyer at Fightback 4 Justice, a not-for-profit group offering appeal advice and advocacy. “So it would be detrimental for claimants,” she adds
Although the MoJ states it does not collect data on the outcomes of different types of hearing, research by the University College London Judicial Institute and the Nuffield Foundation in 2013 found claimants almost three times as likely to win an appeal for disability living allowance (DLA) after an oral hearing than paper alone (46%, compared to 17%).