‘Intolerable’ six-month wait for Norfolk benefits appeals - the majority of which are won
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Benefits claimants are waiting on average six months for their appeals to be heard in what has been branded a 'denial of justice'.
Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, said "the system is imposing an intolerable financial pressure" on people forced to wait months benefits appeals cases - the majority of which rule in the claimant's favour - as latest data showed waiting times are increasing.
The average waiting time for ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) claimants at tribunals in Norwich was 26 weeks in October to December 2018 - an increase of four weeks compared to the figures covering July to September 2018. This was the longest average waiting time since at least April 2015.
It if an ESA claimant's case was received by the courts on January 1, they would not receive a final decision until the last week of June.
For other claimants, the picture slightly improved but overall remained poor.
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The average waiting time for PIP (Personal Independence Payment) claimants at tribunal was 25 weeks, according to figures released covering October to December 2018. That meant the average wait has fallen by one week compared to the figures covering July to September 2018.
But claimants still have to wait nearly six months for their appeal to be heard.
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When decisions are finally made, they strongly favour of the claimant - in Norwich between October and December 78pc of ESA claimants won their appeals, while 70pc of PIP claimants received a decision in their favour, demonstrating that many original decisions are wrong.
A disabled North Walsham couple, who wish to remain anonymous, were stripped of their independence when their motability car was wrongly taken away in 2017.
Gary and Liz Turner (not their real names) were both injured in separate accidents, leaving Mrs Turner in a wheelchair.
Mr Turner said: "In the January of 2017 Liz was on DLA and she had a new car and we thought well that's fine. In the October they said we're putting you on PIP and they said even though she was in a wheelchair she was not disabled enough. They cancelled her advanced PIP and we immediately asked for a reconsideration, but they came back and said there's no evidence on your file that she needed a wheelchair."
The couple got proof from their doctor that Mrs Turner did need her wheelchair, but they still received a letter to say the car needed to be returned in December.
"So it was sent back," Mr Turner said, and his wife went without her car for six months, relying on community transport help.
But when they later received a decision notice on their appeal, they were told the car had been reinstated in November - so Mrs Turner need not have gone without.
"Nobody bothered to tell us," Mr Turner said. "The last 12 years have been a nightmare. The trouble is it has an impact mentally, my wife and I are both on anti-depressants, there is not a month goes by when one of us does not say 'why are we even doing this?'."
Mr Lamb has called on the government to take action to halt the rise and received assurances from the minister responsible for the courts that judicial appointments are being made in an attempt to reduce waiting times.
Mr Lamb said: "Justice delayed is justice denied, and when people are waiting six months on average, that is a denial of justice.
These lengthy waits would be shocking even if they were only experienced by 10 or 25pc of claimants. But a six month wait is just the average.
"It is difficult to understate how traumatic the experience of waiting so long for a tribunal decision can be. Some of those claimants will have desperately needed their PIP or ESA decisions reversed.
"And the high success rates of claimants is evidence that the government is forcing people to take claims through the lengthy tribunal process too frequently."
A government spokesman said: "We understand that delays can be stressful which is why we continue to appoint more judges and panel members and are developing a new digital system to speed up the appeals process. Millions of benefit decisions have been made and of these only a very small proportion are overturned at appeal - 5pc for PIP and 4pc for ESA."