A shocked welfare rights worker, posting on Rightsnet, has revealed how his client had their personal independence payment (PIP) appeal refused because of the amount of time the claimant allegedly spent on Facebook.
Accused of lying
The claimant had appealed to a first-tier tribunal about the decision on their PIP claim and attended an oral hearing with a representative.
Whilst considering their mental health, the claimant was asked by the panel whether they ever used Facebook. The claimant replied that they did so ‘now and again’.
After all the evidence had been taken, the claimant and their representative returned to the waiting room while the tribunal made their deliberations.
However, when they were called back before the panel to hear the decision, the claimant was accused of lying to the tribunal. The medical panel member had the claimant’s Facebook page open on their smartphone and was reading from it, clearly taking the view that the number of posts was too frequent to be regarded as ‘now and again’.
Because the evidence gathering phase of the appeal had ended, the claimant was not allowed to respond, they could only listen to the decision of the tribunal in shocked silence.
Thus they were given no opportunity to challenge the accusation that they were lying or to explain that their partner also used their Facebook page.
Instead, they must now go through the lengthy process of asking for a statement of reasons from the tribunal judge – which can take many weeks or months to be provided - before asking for the decision to be set aside or appealing to the upper tribunal.
Breach of natural justice
There is a very strong probability that the decision will be overturned because it is such a flagrant breach of natural justice: the decision was based on evidence acquired by the panel itself from elsewhere and the claimant was given no opportunity to comment on it.
But, as well as leaving a big question mark over the quality of training for tribunal members, this episode also raises the possibility that claimants’ use of social media may in the future be used as evidence when making decisions on benefits entitlement.
If all the facts are collected and the claimant is given the opportunity to comment on them, this may just be another indignity that claimants are expected to learn to live with. Either that or claimants will need to make sure that their online life is kept as private as possible.
But if decisions are made based on partial evidence and wrong assumptions, as in this case, it will simply lead to more unfairness and injustice for sick and disabled people.