A revised travel benchmark for court closures could discriminate against disabled people trying to appeal welfare decisions, MPs have been told.
The Ministry of Justice confirmed last month that future court closures will be based on the principle that people who need to go to court should not have to leave their home before 7.30am and should be back by 7.30pm
However, Ken Butler, a welfare rights and policy adviser at Disability Rights UK, told the House of Commons justice select committee today that the benchmark is 'quite probably' indirectly discriminatory against social security tribunal users.
The committee, which is examining the government's £1bn court and tribunal reform programme, heard that 80% of cases dealt with by social security tribunals involve appeals about employment and support allowance, or personal independence payments. The majority of appellants will be people who are disabled or have a long-term health condition.
Butler said the benchmark was 'absurd' in terms of social security appeal tribunals. 'Even the Department for Work & Pensions say to their assessment providers that a disabled person, when they are invited to a face-to-face assessment, the maximum travel time should be 90 minutes. If you can't physically, partly because of a physical disability or mental health disability, access a tribunal venue you are in fact cut off from justice. The longer the journey time, the more complicated the journey is going to be, the more arduous it is going to be. There will be more connections. It may be less straightforward because you need to make sure the connections you are making involve accessible means of transport.'
Wendy Rainbow, legal team manager at the Independent Provider of Special Education Advice, told the committee that the special educational needs and disability tribunal tries to list hearings within around two hours' travel time for parents. 'Any extension of that would cause massive issues for their position, just by the nature of the appeal all of them have got childcare problems and some of them children with very serious health issues and complex health needs. It would disproportionately affect them,' she said.
Rainbow told MPs that, at the latest tribunal user group meeting, it emerged that 40 SEND hearings had been stood down a week in March due to a lack of judicial availability and venues. 'Very often now we will get one hour listed, then that will be vacated usually at short notice when you have put in place all those childcare issues and arrangements,' she said.
Solicitor Sara Lomri, deputy legal director at London firm Public Law Project, said the 7.30am-7.30pm window represented a 'significant jump' from justice minister Shailesh Vara's announcement in 2016 that the majority or citizens would be able to reach their required court by car within an hour.