The Department for Work and Pensions has been unlawfully preventing people refused social security benefits from going to tribunal to challenge the decision, judges ruled today.

In a test case, the Upper Tribunal criticised the DWP’s policy of denying claimants an appeal if they failed to act within a month.

The tribunal said many claimants will be vulnerable and that it was ‘obvious that there would be a risk’ that people with good claims would miss the deadline.

Since 2013 a claimant wishing to challenge a decision to refuse them benefits has had to apply for a ‘mandatory reconsideration’ before appealing to an independent tribunal. Where a mandatory reconsideration application is made too late, there is no right of appeal to the tribunal.

The case was bought by Child Poverty Action Group and two claimants, both of whom have mental health problems. The claimants were denied benefits and were deemed to have failed to ask for a review in time.

CPAG claimed the effect of the DWP policy has been to exclude large numbers of benefit claimants from access to the justice system and, in the words of the tribunal, has resulted ’in a significant number of claimants who are entitled to benefits not being paid them’.

The tribunal, chaired by Mr Justice Charles, said the DWP’s position would improperly make the Secretary of State ‘gatekeeper to the independent tribunal system’.

Instead, the tribunal said the correct position is that where a claimant makes a mandatory reconsideration request at any time within 13 months of the original decision, they will, if dissatisfied, subsequently be entitled to pursue the challenge to a tribunal.

The government argued that there was no need to have access to the tribunal because its decisions on late mandatory reconsideration requests could be challenged by judicial review.

However, the tribunal said that out of 1,544,805 mandatory reconsideration decisions made by government since 2013, not one had been subject to a judicial review challenge of the kind the government suggested was a reasonable alternative.

The judgment will be greeted by access to justice campaigners as another significant victory, after the Supreme Court found last week that charges to bring employment tribunal claims, also introduced in 2013, were unlawful.

CPAG’s legal officer Carla Clarke said: ‘Not only is this a vindication for our two clients but it stands to provide justice for significant numbers of families wrongly denied the financial help to which they are entitled. This decision ensures that even if the DWP thinks there is no good reason for their delay, it cannot prevent such individuals pursuing an appeal before an independent tribunal.’

A DWP spokesperson said: ’We have received the tribunal’s decision and are considering the judgment.’