Tribunal restores benefit payments to acid attack victim

Woman had been told she was fit to work despite being in constant pain

From The Guardian-

“The victim of an acid attack who suffered 50% burns to her face and body has overturned an attempt to strip her of a disability benefit after being told she was fit for work.

The woman, who finds it difficult to sit or stand for long without pain and is bed-bound for weeks after reconstructive operations, appealed after officials awarded her zero points at an assessment to test her eligibility for disability employment benefit.

A tribunal hearing on Thursday took less than 20 minutes to uphold her appeal, awarding her 24 points, and restoring her employment and support allowance (ESA). The appeal panel, consisting of a judge and a medical doctor, paid tribute to the woman’s courage.

Her solicitor, Sophie Earnshaw of Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre in west London, said the case was one of the most upsetting of its kind she had been involved in. She said: “This is a truly horrific example of the Department for Work and Pensions’ poor decision-making when it comes to disability benefits.”

The DWP said it was unable to comment on an individual case but insisted that it was committed to ensuring people received the benefits they were entitled to, and would review cases to learn lessons where they had fallen short of “high standards” and ensure that claimants were paid any money owing to them as a result.

The case comes amid continued concern over the reliability of the assessments for both ESA and personal independence payment benefits, which are carried out by private contractors on behalf of the DWP. Nearly three-quarters of ESA appeal and 73% of PIP appeals are successful.

The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a British citizen who suffers from constant pain, trauma, headaches and isolation. She rarely leaves her home except to go to her GP, the hospital or local shops.

Having received ESA for several years, she was reassessed and found fit for work by a healthcare specialist employed by the private firm Maximus last October, not long after she had undergone an operation to reconstruct part of her ear.

She then submitted her case to the DWP for reconsideration, but officials upheld the assessment award of zero points. Had she not subsequently appealed against the decision, she would have been moved on to universal credit, seen her benefit income cut, and be required to spend 35 hours a week looking for work or face sanctions.

Earnshaw said the failure of the work capability assessment to properly assess her client’s health was compounded by the DWP’s failure to take into account the evidence presented to them. The DWP did not send a representative to the tribunal hearing, which was held in London.

She said: “This case should not have been before a tribunal. Already our client is suffering from life-changing burns that have a significant impact on her physical and mental health. The anxiety of appealing the decision and attending a tribunal has been extremely upsetting.”

The woman was referred to Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre by her local Citizens Advice Bureau. The removal of welfare benefits from the scope of legal aid in 2013 meant specialist support for her appeal was only possible through a pro bono project that the law centre runs with the City law firm Debevoise & Plimpton.

The shadow disability minister, Marsha de Cordova, said: “The details of this case given by the claimants’ solicitor are shocking. Yet again the work capability assessment system has failed. People who are ill or disabled should not have to fight through the courts to get the support they should be entitled to.

“Labour will scrap the discredited work capability assessment and ensure that people who are ill or disabled get the support they need and deserve.”

The DWP was heavily criticised earlier this year after a Liverpool man, Stephen Smith, 64, was denied benefits and deemed fit for work, despite multiple debilitating illnesses that shrank his weight to 38kg (6st) and left him barely able to walk.”

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