Councillor Michael Savage, a Newry SDLP Councillor, has been unanimously supported in his motion to Newry Mourne and Down District Council last night (Monday 4 November) at a full council meeting calling on the Appeals Service NI to cease practice of holding welfare appeals at local courthouses.
He said: “These courthouse venues are totally unacceptable as they further traumatise vulnerable appellants in the welfare and disability system.
“This council should investigate facilities in Council property for such tribunals to remove the need for appellants to have to endure court settings.”
In his motion he further added that Council should also note “the protracted delays in getting appeals heard and calls on the Chief Executive to write to the head of the Appeals Service NI and the Permanent Secretary for the Department for Communities requesting an immediate review of the venues for such appeals and the formation of a review panel tasked with addressing the unacceptable delays to appeals being heard.”
Cllr Savage added: “These people are vulnerable… many have learning difficulties, and are unfit for work. The current system is a disgrace and needs to be reviewed.
“These vulnerable people are confronted by physical and pschyological barriers and they are confronted by someone from the legal and medical profession.
“We have a civic responsibility to look after vulnerable people. The system is badly broken. A person going to an appeal tribunal has to get their own medical records sorted out, from their health clinics where staff are already under pressure. And once they have these notes they may well not understand them as many have poor literacy.
“Many of those going to tribunals are confronted about what to do with their medical notes. And because of the new GDPR regulations, the DfC is now not storing medical records which makes the presentation of the appellant’s case all the more difficult.
“We simply need to provide better venues that are neutral and are welcoming.”
Councillors responded supporting Cllr Savage’s motion.
Cllr William Walker (DUP): “People feel like criminals when they have to go to the court house. It is just wrong to put people through this. I agree with Cllr Savage, that it is degrading to have to experience this.
“It is done in the full public glare as people can see who is entering the courthouse. We should write to all 11 councils and ask fro their support to alleviate this awful situation.”
Cllr Laura Devlin (SDLP): “I have been representing constituents at benefit tribunals for approx. 16 years and find the use of Court Houses to be nothing short of a disgrace.
“For anyone who has had to endure a tribunal they will know how emotional and often how traumatic such tribunals can be. The questions asked can be very personal and regularly have appellants in tears. So, what is already a very difficult day can simply be compounded by having to enter a court setting and made feel like a criminal.
“I have attended tribunals in both Downpatrick and Newry Court Houses and feel that forcing a claimant who is simply availing of their right of appeal to appear in court is totally unacceptable.
“As I have said before in this chamber – a society is judged on how we treat the most vulnerable so in that regard it is vital that such practices cease and cease immediately.”
Cllr Andrew McMurray (Alliance) : “We may too need to speak to the welfare charities to help ease the situation. I have seen many people with medical and disability issues that are not going to improve and being confronted by a medical expert can throw people off balance.”
Cllr Oonagh Hanlon (Sinn Féin) : “The present appeals system is demoralising for the appellants who have to fight their cases. Citizens Advice have already high-lighted this in Newry… they would be the first point of call for most people in welfare and disability issues.
Cllr David Taylor (UUP): “This is a worthy motion and our party support it. There is no dignity or privacy sitting with a pile of your medical notes in a public place.”
Cllr Alan Lewis: “I have been siting in people’s houses when they read over letters saying they have to appear in the courthouse for their tribunal. Often there are floods of tears and they are confronted by this injustice. Often decisions made on their benefits have have been wrong and these officers should be totally embarrassed by it all.
“This system is simply degrading and shocking. I would therefore back this motion in council where we find somewhere where these people feel safe.”
In summing up, Cllr Michael Savage said: “I’m happy to accept the amendments to the motion and that we write to other councils. And also that we talk to welfare/disability charities about the appeals.
“The government department should be providing a suitable venue for these vulnerable people.”
Disability and welfare appeals are also held regularly at the Down Business Centre in Downpatrick. This venue is wheelchair accessible, and has electronic automated doors which facilitate disabled access and is on the ground floor with toilets close by. There is also disabled parking spaces directly outside the front door.
Whilst the Appeals Service NI does book only one room for appellants to confide with their advisers and legal representatives, the Down Business Centre also provides (free of charge) another room (when available) for use if required for those attending tribunals in a safe and secure setting.