Courthouse move for benefit Tribunals condemned by politicians

October 30, 2012

By Christine Keighery

A move by the Appeals Service, to relocate benefit hearings to Newry Courthouse, has been heavily criticised by local political representatives.  There are concerns that the move will compound the stress for those attempting to overturn denial of benefit decisions, by adding an even more daunting aspect to the process. It is also feared that the courthouse move will deter many deserving benefit recipients of appealing a denial decision.

SDLP Assembly Member for Newry and Armagh, Dominic Bradley, slammed the move and revealed that he has escalated the issue as a matter of urgency to the Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland.

Mr Bradley said, “This is completely unacceptable and must be stopped straight away. Cases before these appeals are dealing with benefit claimants, many of whom are disabled or out of work.  In recent months my office has seen a dramatic increase in the number of appeals going through the system.  Often, these appeals overturn the original decisions of the Social Security Agency, in recognition of the vulnerability of the people involved.

“This move to the court house, a daunting and solemn building, is seen by many as a way of intimidating people out of attending an appeal.”

The SDLP MLA said his office had made representations at the highest levels within the Appeals Service.

“The argument being made to justify this is one of cost and savings. The question constituents are asking me, is where is the fairness and justice in this decision?

“I have sent urgent correspondence to the Minister for Social Development asking for his personal intervention.  If this is about saving money, there is no reason why the Social Security Agency cannot use its own offices in our towns and cities, or they can use other government buildings.  Many of our court houses are very impressive buildings, but they are also imposing and, by the nature of the work they do, are associated with wrong doing and breaking the law. I don’t believe a court house is a suitable place for social security appeal hearings and I will be fighting this move every step of the way.”

Newry Armagh Sinn Fein MLA, Mickey Brady, also condemned the move, believing it gives cause for concern on two fronts.

“Firstly, as these appeals may happen simultaneously in both venues, the ability for appellants to have representation at the hearings will be restricted.  CAB and elected representatives have been doing their best, in difficult circumstances and with increasing demand, to provide effective representation at Tribunal hearings, but will struggle to be in two venues at once.

“Secondly, Ballybot House has been seen for many years to be a suitable venue for appeal hearings as it is a less formal and intimidating venue for the public. Requesting people to appear at a Courthouse for their Tribunal appearance will significantly add to the stress which those struggling with the denial of benefits are already suffering.

Mr Brady said he had raised his concerns with the Appeals Service and pledged to bring the issue to the Assembly’s Social Development Committee at the earliest opportunity.

Commenting on the unwelcome development,  Stephen Murney, representative of Republican group,  éirígí, said,

“It can be a daunting enough experience to appear in front of a benefit appeals panel,  but this decision to relocate to a heavily fortified Court House will do nothing but cause additional stress and worry to many of those working class people who will be affected by this decision.

“The people who contacted éirígí are, quite rightly, concerned about the negative impact this move will have on ordinary citizens, the vast majority of whom have never entered a Court House in their lives.”

Mr Murney described the move as “a very carefully designed plan to try and deter people from appealing draconian decisions regarding their benefits. Indeed, this is, very clearly, a not-so-subtle attempt to portray those struggling to maintain their welfare entitlements as criminals.”

Murney concluded,  “Not only is the Stormont administration willingly implementing Tory cuts on behalf of the British government in Westminister, but now they are using heavily fortified courts as part of their anti-social programme.

“The extent that those responsible for this mess will go to seems to know no bounds. It appears that they will try everything and anything to prevent the sick, the disabled and the unemployed  from accessing their rightful entitlements .”