The right to social protection is often infringed due to poor decision-making by welfare officers on initial applications. The social welfare appeals system has come under considerable strain since the beginning of the recession. The number of live appeals has trebled since 2007, rising from 19,568 in that year1 to almost 59,000 live appeals in 2013.2 Probably due to the surge in volume, processing times have also increased significantly over the same period and appellants experience long delays in having their claim decided. In 2013, appellants had to wait an average of 34 weeks for an oral hearing and 26 weeks for a decision on the written evidence only3 although the waiting times for oral hearings did fall from the 2011 peak of 52.5 weeks.4 Furthermore, the consistently high rate of success at appeal5 indicates that often appellants have to endure unacceptable delays to get a payment to which they were entitled where better first instance-decision making and better information to applicants would be a better use of limited resources.
The success rate for oral hearings is consistently much higher than the rate for summary decisions – in 2013, 48 per cent for oral hearings compared to 25 per cent for summary decisions6 – but despite this consistent outcome, appellants are not automatically granted an oral hearing. The Social Welfare Appeals Office is not an independent appellate body but is instead a division of the Department of Social Protection and Appeals Officers remain employees of the Department. It has also been criticised for its lack of transparency because it publishes only a handful of decisions making it difficult for appellants to understand the basis for those decisions or for consistency in decision-making to be maintained. In addition, representation for social welfare appellants is excluded from the remit of civil legal aid.7 The decision in the Jama8 case demonstrates that recourse to the courts to ensure greater access to information and facilitate greater access to justice has not proved an effective remedy thus far for social welfare appellants.
FLAC urges the Committee to recommend that the State:
Carry out targeted training with departmental staff to improve the assistance and support provided to social welfare applicants so they can supply the requisite information at the outset of their application and thus reduce the need for appeals.
Ensure appellants are entitled to an oral hearing and decisions of the Social Welfare Appeals Office are published routinely.
Change the status of the Social Welfare Appeals Office to create an independent body which can ensure fairness, transparency and consistency in decision-making.
1 Social Welfare Appeals Office (2008) Annual Report 2007, Dublin: SWAO, p.4.
2 Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton TD, Written Answers, Dáil Éireann unrevised, 29 May 2014.
3 Social Welfare Appeals Office (2014) Annual Report 2013, Dublin: SWAO, p.6. Waiting times peaked in 2011 when an oral hearing took 53 weeks on average and 25 weeks for a summary/written decision.
4 Social Welfare Appeals Office (2012) Annual Report 2011, Dublin: SWAO, p.3.
5 In 2013, 55 per cent of appeals were decided in favour of the appellant while 21 per cent of the total number of appeals did not go to an Appeals Officer but were instead revised by the original decision-maker once an appeal was lodged. Social Welfare Appeals Office (2014) Annual Report 2013, Dublin: SWAO, p8.
6 Social Welfare Appeals Office (2014) Annual Report 2013, Dublin: SWAO, p.5.
7 FLAC (2012) Not Fair Enough: Making the case for the reform of the social welfare appeals system, Dublin: FLAC.
8 Jama v Minister for Social Protection  IEHC 379. See case study on pp.3-4.
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