UK court rules that disability benefit delays are unlawful

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UK Disability benefits must be processed within a reasonable time

A United Kingdom court ruled June 5 that the national Department for Work and Pensions is violating UK law by failing to timely process Personal Independence Payments [PDF].

Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party first launched the PIP on a gradual basis in 2013, with a full roll out planned for October 2015. The system will replace the Disability Living Allowance system, which provides benefits to about 1.5 million people between ages 16 and 64 with long-term disabilities.

The two plaintiffs in the lawsuit both were forced to wait more than nine months while the DWP determined whether they were eligible for PIP payments. One of the individuals twice had to travel long distances for face-to-face assessments, despite informing the DWP of the difficulties her disabilities placed on her ability to travel.

While her application was pending, she spent only eight pounds per month on food, often only leaving her house once a week to go to the grocery store.

As a starting point, the Court found that government has a common law duty to process disability payments within a reasonable time. Noting the hardship the delays impose on the plaintiffs, the court ruled that in their circumstances, the more than nine-month delays were unreasonable and therefore unlawful.

“The scale of the project is a cogent factor in the defendant’s favor, but it has to be balanced against the fact that the PIP scheme is intended for the most vulnerable members of society and fit for purpose has to be construed with that service user in mind,” the Court ruled. “It is important, therefore, that the system introduced and operated is accessible to its service users and is efficient.”

However, the Court ruled against the claimants in their assertions that the delays constituted human rights violations under the European Convention on Human Right [PDF], noting that the government is making progress on reducing the waiting times.

One claim was brought under Article 6, which guarantees the right to a “fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” Although this Article has been extended to the right to civil benefits, as opposed to just criminal proceedings, the court found that it did not apply here because there was no dispute as to claimant’s entitlement to benefits, just a delay in the application process.

The other claim was brought under Article 1 of the First Protocol, which protects the right to the “peaceful enjoyment of possessions.” The court ruled that this provision applies only to existing benefits, not applications for benefits.

Therefore, the claimants are not entitled to a monetary award for the delays.

Nationwide, about 78,000 people have applications pending for PIP benefits, 22,800 of whom have been waiting for more than 20 months.

“Today’s decision sends a clear message that the unacceptable delays faced by many people, may also be unlawful,” the claimant’s attorney told the BBC. “Attention must now turn to rethinking the planned wider rollout in October until reassurances can be provided that the delays seen in the past are not repeated in the future.’

The decision was issued by the Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division Administrative Court.