Steve Donnison manages 'Benefits and Work', an online information service offering extensive information on welfare benefits, employment rights, advice and representation as well as providing downloadable advice guides and a member discussion forum. Here, he describes a forthcoming video aimed at dispelling myths for first-time tribunal users, inviting any useful tips.
Sarah is terrified. For two years she's been getting Disability Living Allowance (DLA) because of the problems caused by her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and associated depression. But when her claim came up for renewal she was turned down, even though there has been no improvement in her condition. With the help of the Citizens Advice Bureau, Sarah got the Department for Work and Pensions to look at their decision again, but the answer came back the same. Now Sarah has been told that her only hope is to go before a tribunal and face being grilled by three strangers.
Sarah's DLA made a huge difference to her life and she's struggling desperately to cope without it. But the strain of losing it has already made her condition worse and Sarah has never had anything to do with a judicial procedure before. The CAB have said they can provide a written submission for her hearing but, because they are now funded by the Community Legal Service, they have no money to pay for anyone to represent her on the day. She will have to go alone or find a friend or relative to accompany her. Sarah is very frightened and not at all sure that she can go through with it.
If you had just thirty seconds, what could you say to Sarah that might make a difference?
Why thirty seconds? Well, Sarah is the case study for a video being produced by Benefits and Work, a unique and largely claimant funded information provider. The purpose of the video is to encourage claimants unhappy with benefits decisions to take their case to an appeal tribunal. It aims to show what actually happens at incapacity and disability benefits hearings and to arm claimants with a few useful tips and insights to help them put their case.
And it has to be short.
It has to be short because, like all Benefits and Work projects it is being produced on a shoestring and relies heavily on people providing their services, knowledge and experience for free. It also has to be short because we hope that it will be shown by advice and support agencies to claimants who may not have a video or DVD player of their own. Those agencies probably can't afford to have their interview rooms tied up for an hour at a time by people watching films.
This means that we have to make the most of the time we've got.
We already know that, for most claimants, an appeal hearing will be the first experience they have ever had of judicial proceedings. Their only idea of what to expect may be based on what they've seen of courts on TV. So a large part of our time will be taken up with dispelling some of the commonest fears and uncertainties people may have, by showing what really happens at an appeal hearing. The aim is to reassure potential appellants that there will be no bench, no oaths and no bewigged barristers bellowing "Just answer the question. Did you or did you not push a shopping trolley round Sainsburys last Tuesday? Yes or no?"
The video also seeks to answer some of the questions that official information seldom touches upon. Such as "What should I wear?", "Will they want to examine my legs?" and "What do I call the people asking me questions?"
But we want to do more than that. Some of our audience will be fortunate enough to have a representative accompanying them to their hearing. But many will not. So we want to arm them with a few simple hints and tips about such things: as how best to put your evidence; how to deal with hostile questioning and what do you do if you feel that the tribunal is trying to hurry you out of the door?
One of the techniques we're using to achieve this is 'talking heads': real people and/or actors who have a very brief opportunity to encourage and forearm claimants by passing on their experiences or their hard-earned wisdom.
Which is where you come in.
If you had a thirty-second slot in our video, what would you say to Sarah to help her to find the courage to lodge her appeal and turn up for an oral hearing?
Alternatively, if you had thirty seconds to give Sarah one useful piece of advice that would help her to put her case, what would it be? It might be the sort of advice that anyone connected with tribunals would want to give. Or it might be some handy tip for dealing with a difficult situation that very few other people will have thought of.
If you've got a contribution you'd like to make, please email it to us at: info¶@¶benefitsandwork.co.uk
You're very welcome to ask for your communication to be treated as anonymous and we aren't expecting you to make a personal appearance on the video – though offers are always welcome. What we really want most, though, is your knowledge and your insights.
And if you'd like to find out more about Benefits and Work before deciding whether to contribute, you can join the more than one thousand people a day who visit our website at www.benefitsandwork.co.uk
Steve Donnison has worked in the voluntary sector for over 20 years, mainly with disadvantaged children and homeless adults. He has been a welfare rights worker for 7 years and although now self-employed he continues to represent clients at social security tribunals for a local advice agency. He writes about welfare benefits for a wide range of disability organisations, including: Disability Alliance; National Association for Colitis and Crohn's Disease; Spinal Injuries Association; Multiple Sclerosis Society; Cerebra, the foundation for brain injured children.