Raji Hunjan, Chief Executive
Earlier this month, Aditya Chakrabortty’s write up in the Guardian tracked the experience of a woman with a disability going through the process of applying for disability benefits, and preparing for a tribunals appeal.
It very much spoke to our work, and our concern that if as one small charity we are helping at least 20 people a month to challenge unfair decisions, the national picture must be incredibly bleak in terms of the number of people who are having to go to tribunal to secure the benefits they are clearly entitled to. And judging by our success rate of at least 85% in any given month over the last year, how are those conducting the initial assessments for disability benefits getting it so badly wrong in the first place?
Recently we helped a refugee with PTSD, who was terrified to leave the house alone and was undergoing specialist psychiatric treatment for victims of torture – yet was found capable of work; needless to say this was overturned at tribunal and they are now in the Support Group. Then we represented a stroke patient with severe movement and cognitive deficits; their GP was incredulous that PIP had been refused and their Motability car was being taken away. When we put this case in front of a tribunal judge, this person was given the maximum award – the enhanced rate for Daily Living and Mobility. And then we saw a client with severe sight impairment who was described by a consultant ophthalmologist as “effectively almost blind” and yet was found capable of work by the assessor; this has now been overturned and the person is in the Support Group.
It’s absolutely exhausting – for us undertaking this work on a very tight budget, but more so for the individual claimants who then suffer the emotional and financial stress and uncertainty of how they are going to manage. A number of our clients are in rent arrears and at serious risk of losing their homes. We regularly hand out food bank vouchers and several are given small sums of cash from a relief from poverty fund that we administer.
If getting it wrong in the first place isn’t bad enough, government cuts to welfare benefits advice and legal aid make it near impossible for vast amounts of people to be able to fight back and secure what they are entitled to.
It is for all these reasons that we are delighted to have received additional funding, both from the EHRC and the Access to Justice Foundation. This will enable us both to increase our capacity for taking more cases to tribunal and to step up our policy and campaigning work, using our casework experience as our evidence base.
We have a relatively new tribunals co-ordinator in place and are in the process of recruiting a second project worker on a short term basis to help develop the infrastructure we need in house to increase our capacity. As our own team expands we are also developing more partnerships with qualified lawyers and law students, training them to work pro bono on behalf of our clients. This will enable us to almost double the number of clients we are able to represent at tribunal, to at least 40 a month. In line with our core value of helping those in greatest difficulty, we have already started to improve our referrals pathways to reach more of those clients with the most complex needs, who struggle to find welfare advice and support elsewhere.
Through our research and policy work we are continuing to gather case study evidence and to work directly with our clients to ensure that their voices and experiences are heard by those in power. We are very clear that the people affected by the issues we are uncovering should be supported and empowered to challenge those in a position of responsibility.
We want to hear from other welfare rights services, disability organisations, and anti-poverty charities who are working on similar issues, so do get in touch. Together our voices are louder and harder to ignore.
In the meantime, if you want to donate to help us to keep our vital work going, you can do so here.