A new online system for appeals is to be introduced, along with more decisions being made “on the papers” and the ditching of medical and disability members from most panels. The result is likely to be a significant and sustained fall in both the volume of appeals and the success rate for claimants.
Case officer says ‘No’
Under the new system, some matters that are currently decided by judges will be dealt with by ‘case officers’ instead. This could mean clerks deciding whether your appeal is in time, for example, or whether your appeal will be held online, in person or “on the papers”.
More decisions “on the papers”
The government’s intention is that:
“Where a case is relatively straightforward or routine, representations will be made online in writing for a judge to consider outside of a traditional court room, without the need for a physical hearing, meaning a more convenient experience for everyone involved.”
What is really “convenient” for the DWP about this is that the success rates for paper hearings are drastically lower than for appeals where you appear in person.
At the moment claimants get to choose whether they want to appear before a panel or just submit written evidence. In the future it will be a clerk or a judge who makes that choice for you.
More virtual hearings
Even if you manage to avoid a paper hearing, the chances of having your appeal in the same room as the tribunal judge are very slim indeed.
“Where a judge needs to listen to the parties make their arguments, it will be possible in many cases to hold the hearings over telephone or video conference, without the need for the parties to travel to a court building. There will still be an important place for physical court hearings for criminal trials and other serious or complex cases, but where they are appropriate, virtual hearings offer an easy and convenient alternative for everybody.”
For some claimants, removing the stress and pain involved in travelling to a hearing will be an enormous advantage. But for others, the sheer strangeness of an online exchange – and all the technical problems it may involve – will make it very hard for them to give detailed and persuasive evidence.
Many claimants may not even get as far as a hearing, whether online or on the papers, even after lodging an appeal. The government says:
“In appropriate cases, we will encourage parties to settle their disputes themselves, without the intervention of the courts.”
The real fear here is that the DWP will effectively be able to bully claimants into accepting a lower award than they believe they are entitled to, in order to avoid the risk and emotional trauma of an appeal.
Fewer panel members
The government also plans to “streamline” the appeals system by making much less use of additional panel members.
“In the First-tier Tribunal (Social Security and Child Support), for example, many cases must be heard by a judge, a medical member and a member with experience of providing or receiving care for disability, regardless of the circumstances of the case in question.”
What this means in practice is that most appeals will be heard by retired solicitors sitting alone, with no-one with specialist medical knowledge, or specialist knowledge of disability issues more generally to assist them.
We’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is likely to lead to a rise in the success rates for claimants at benefits appeals.
Benefits and Work