EDF’s Jo Chimes has been the driving force behind the Everyday Equality Project and put together the handbook with support from welfare rights advisers and equality law specialists. She said there is ‘a significant discrimination advice gap’ among benefits advisers ‘as they do not feel confident in using equality rights in their everyday advice work’. She believes the handbook will help address this problem.
The handbook includes case studies that provide examples of the use of equality law in benefits matters. In the case of Bella (not the client’s real name), her employment and support allowance (ESA) was stopped after she was unable to attend a rearranged work capability assessment medical. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had a policy that the appointments could only be changed once and subsequently decided she had failed to attend her second appointment without good cause.
Bella had learning difficulties and she met the definition of disabled under the Equality Act (EA) 2010. Her adviser wrote to the DWP arguing that it had discriminated against her (EA 2010 s15) as her disability led to difficulties attending appointments, that it had failed to make reasonable adjustments (EA 2010 s20) and that it was in breach of the public sector equality duty (EA 2010 s149). In this case, the client was satisfied with the DWP’s response, which was to reinstate her ESA, but if she was dissatisfied she could have brought a discrimination claim for compensation in the county court (under EA 2010 Part 3: services and public functions) or judicial review proceedings.
According to Desmond Rutledge, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers who spoke at the launch event: ‘Social security law until now has been rules-based, but the roll-out of universal credit has led to a lot of judgements being made by decision-makers that can be open to challenge under discrimination law.’ He believes the Administrative Court potentially has an important role to play in deciding if a new policy complies with equality law or if there has been a systemic failure in the way in which a benefit has been administered. Rutledge also made the point that many individuals are potentially at risk of destitution ‘due to a combination of delay, conditionality and sanctions’, and that the threat of judicial review, which is still funded by legal aid, can be the only effective remedy in such cases to persuade the DWP to review its decisions promptly.1For a useful guide to obtaining legal aid in such cases, see ‘Use it or lose it: welfare benefits’ by Desmond Rutledge and Tom Royston (October 2015 Legal Action 19).
A number of the speakers at the launch event encouraged benefits advisers to refer cases to lawyers if they believe judicial review or county court proceedings are appropriate remedies. The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides a support service for frontline advice agencies to assist with complex cases
. It funded the handbook and LAG sat on the project’s steering committee.