Advice NI flag concerns about digital social security appeal hearings amid concerns about an appeal backlog

In light of public health concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Ireland’s president of Tribunals and The Appeals Service (TAS) have suspended all in-person oral tribunal hearings until further notice.
This is necessary to protect the public health, and in the long-term, remote hearings may function as an effective tool to make hearings more accessible to people who have difficulty accessing the justice system, such as rural populations and persons with disabilities. However, there are a number of challenges associated with the rapid introduction of remote digital appeals:
  • Northern Ireland hosts the UK’s largest digital divide. 15% of the population have no internet access and 32.2% have low or no digital skills. Furthermore, economically inactive individuals are over four times more likely to be offline than the general population. This means that many people who rely upon benefits will be unable to access digital appeals.
  • Digitally excluded individuals can take part in telephone or paper appeals, but there are serious concerns that these mediums prevent people from having the merits of their case fairly assessed: paper appeals are over thirty times more likely to be rejected than in-person oral appeals.
  • Studies into the experiences of those who have taken part in virtual courts reveal that it is more difficult for appellants to advocate for themselves in a digital setting than it is in person, because technology creates a disconnect between parties to a dispute and detracts from the gravity of the courtroom setting.
  • Advice centres are currently working to provide as much remote support as possible by making resources available online and conducting personal advice via telephone. However, advisers report that it is more difficult to gain a full perspective of a client’s situation when they are interacting with them on a remote basis.
  • Tribunal representatives are able to join online and telephone appeals to provide appellants with remote support, and can provide confidential support during the appeals process. However, representatives are concerned that it will be difficult to effectively guide clients through the appeals process when they are not in their physical presence.
These factors indicate that, at present, appellants who choose to take part in remote digital hearings may be at a disadvantage in comparison to in-person appellants who are present at an oral appeal.

It is clear that based on existing evidence, agreeing to proceed with a paper based hearing will place appellants at a disadvantage in terms of successful outcomes.
 
It is therefore important to ensure that in-person appeals return as soon as safely possible.
 
In the meantime, Advice NI will continue to provide clients with information and advice via phone or telephone, and tribunal representatives will provide remote support to appellants throughout the process.
 
END.
 
Notes:
 
  1. For further information contact Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy, Advice NI on 02890645919 or 07743496957.  Email: kevin@adviceni.net
  2. Click the link for a full copy of the Briefing Paper – Advice NI Social Policy Paper Digital Appeals June 2020
  3. Advice NI is the umbrella body for the Independent Advice Network in Northern Ireland and its members dealt with 404,594 enquiries in 2018/19, the majority being social security benefits related.
  4. To find out more about the work of the Independent Advice Network or to obtain copies of the various publications produced by Advice NI, please contact us on 028 90 645919, email comms@adviceni.net or visit our www.adviceni.net