Waiting 17 months for an appeal...
by Felix McHugh
Mon 14th Jan 2013
Paula is depressed. She has no motivation to look after herself, to eat or to get dressed. Some days she stays in bed and doesn’t open the curtains. She will not answer the door or telephone and she rarely goes outside because if she does so she might encounter someone she knows which could oblige her to engage in conversation. Even worse, she might need to communicate with someone she does not know. Because of this fear, she felt unable to go to her Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) sessions even after waiting months for her first appointment. She has been taking anti-depressants for so long that she no longer has to go to the surgery for repeat prescriptions but gets her partner to ring up and order them for her. Before her illness became so debilitating she had a job in a shop, which she used to enjoy, but now the idea of going to work and being approached by customers and other staff is so frightening that the very thought brings on an anxiety attack.
Paula receives a letter informing her that her award of Incapacity Benefit is coming to an end and that she must fill in a form in order to claim Employment and Support Allowance instead. This causes her to panic because she has heard that ESA is much harder to get than Incapacity Benefit and she has no idea how she will cope with the fall in income which would occur if she should be found not to satisfy the strict criteria imposed by the new rules.
The form, ESA 50, arrives and Paula asks her boyfriend to fill it in for her because she cannot face doing it herself. She has glanced at the form and noted that most of the questions on it are about physical disabilities, and so she believes that there is nothing she can write which will be helpful. Her boyfriend turns to the latter half of the form and finds that there are a few questions relating to mental health but because the very last thing she wants is to write about her miserable circumstances, her partner completes it and sends it off in the envelope provided.
Within a month Paula is called for an examination, not in her home town but in the nearby city, which she has not visited for the last two years because of her fear of other people. She is tempted to refuse to attend but is aware that if she does not do so her benefit will be suspended. She cannot sleep and believes that her medication is no longer strong enough to keep her depression under control, but her fear of the surgery keeps her from visiting her GP to discuss this. In any case, since she did not turn up for her CBT she believes that her doctor has lost patience with her and she is frightened that if she visits her at the surgery the doctor will show her disapproval.
After tears, panic and several heated arguments, Paula agrees that her partner can take her to her work capability assessment. She has no sleep the night before her appointment and takes a large dose of Diazepam before setting off. Surprisingly, however, her assessment is not as onerous as she had feared. The doctor asks her very few questions and the entire thing is over in 15 minutes. That night she sleeps well, having surprised herself by going through the ordeal unscathed.
Three weeks later a letter arrives. What Paula did not know is that the “doctor” who assessed her is actually a physiotherapist with no knowledge of, or experience in, the field of mental illness. The result of his assessment is that Paula should be able to return to work within three months and is not entitled to Employment and Support Allowance. Paula has a severe panic attack, cries for two days and her boyfriend who rings for advice and is advised to appeal. Paula’s depression beomes more severe and her doctor increases her medication while she waits for her appeal to be listed for hearing.
16 months later Paula still has not had a date for her appeal. Concerned that she will certainly not be able to appear when the appeal is listed, her boyfriend (Paula is by now too depressed to act on her own behalf) writes to request that the appeal take place in her home. The response, when it arrives 3 weeks later, is “The District Judge has decided that this is not possible.” No further explanation is offered. Although to most observers there seems no reason why it should be impossible for the Tribunals Service to offer a domiciliary appeal the District Judge’s decision stands and there is no room for discussion. Paula goes to bed in tears, does not sleep and stays in bed throughout the following day.
Next week Paula’s appeal takes place. To find out what happens, check out the London Progressive Journal and hope that her 17 month ordeal has been worth it, as if that were even possible.