The cost-cutting agenda behind moving tribunal hearings online has been further exposed in new regulations which will to allow ministers and senior judges to cut the number of people sitting on panels, including social security appeal tribunals.
The First-tier Tribunal and Upper Tribunal (Composition of Tribunal) (Amendment) Order 2018 allows the Senior President of Tribunals (SPT) to decide on the number of panel members for any type of tribunal.
In addition, in the future the SPT has to first consult with a government minister before making any decision.
The government claim that the aim is to make “the use of tribunal panel members should be more tailored and flexible”.
The fear is that the aim is simply to cut costs by ensuring that the vast majority of tribunals have only a judge sitting alone.
At present ESA tribunals have a medical member as well as a judge. PIP and DLA tribunals have a judge, a medical member and a person with specialist knowledge of disability issues.
Under the new rules the SPT could decide that all social security hearings would be heard by a judge sitting alone, with a medical member only in special cases. The use of a disability specialist could be dropped altogether.
Many Benefits and Work readers will be able to tell tales of medical members, and even disability members, of panels who behaved in a distrustful and even hostile manner, whilst the judge appeared to be fair and sympathetic.
But it is equally the case that it is often the medical member who points out flaws in the evidence collected in the face-to-face assessment.
And disability members frequently ask questions touching on the daily lives of claimants which help to make clear the real difficulties they face with everyday activities.
A judge sitting alone may have no lived experience of disability and lack any knowledge of the medical condition at issue.
It is hard to see how there can be any advantage to claimants in reducing the number or range of people sitting on PIP, ESA or DLA appeal panels. But the cost advantages to the government are clear.
More details about the changes to the regulations can be found on the parliament website.