An increasing share of people who take the Government to court over a decision to deny them disability benefits are winning their appeals.
Four out of five people (82%) were successful at tribunals serving London from 2018 to 2021, up from three-quarters (72%) between 2015 and 2018.
Most hearings centred on Personal Independence Payment (PIP), the main disability benefit.
Will Johnstone, of the charity Rethink Mental Illness, accused the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of “desperately failing the people it is supposed to support”.
The department said the PIP assessment process was “carried out by experienced health professionals” and the vast majority of cases were not appealed.
Londoners who are denied disability benefits can challenge the decision through a written process called a mandatory reconsideration.
If this is unsuccessful, they can ask for the case to be heard at the Sutton Social Security and Child Support Tribunal.
There were 7,023 tribunals at this centre in 2020-21, with appellants winning 5,662 cases (80%), the DWP winning 1,312 (19%) and others being withdrawn, according to analysis by the BBC’s Shared Data Unit.
Mr Johnstone said: “The mandatory reconsideration process often causes significant distress to people who want to challenge benefit decisions, with the Department for Work and Pensions seeking to discourage appeals which they often go on to lose.
“Yet despite their poor track record and the negative impact on people’s wellbeing, the DWP persists in forcing people to take cases to court to get the correct decision.
“This is why we’re calling for a full public inquiry and an independent body to investigate cases of serious harm linked to the wider policies and procedures of the DWP, as it is currently desperately failing the people it is supposed to support.”
Daphne Hall, the vice chair of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers, said: “I think there are still a lot of wrong decisions being made, hence the high success rate.
“However, DWP has improved its decision-making at mandatory reconsideration stage and a lot more decisions are changed at that stage than they used to be.
“This is because the DWP have started what they call 'holistic' decision-making when they try and look at all the evidence to make a decision, but they could do with doing that more at the first decision stage in my view.”
A spokesperson for the DWP said: “We support millions of people a year and our priority is they get the support they are entitled to as quickly as possible.
“The vast majority of PIP cases are not appealed and we continue to improve the service offered to customers, including through recent changes to our decision-making process.
“The PIP assessment process is carried out by experienced health professionals and considers how people are affected by their disability, rather than just the disability itself, and more than double the proportion of PIP claimants get the top rates of support compared to those who receive Disability Living Allowance.”
How does the appeal process work?
Initial benefits assessments are carried out on behalf of the DWP by the private contractors Capita, the Independent Assessment Services (formerly called Atos) and Maximus.
The DWP maintains its disability assessors are all experienced health professionals and their work is subject to ongoing quality monitoring.
Since 2013, people seeking to overturn a benefits decision must complete a written challenge within a month, known as a mandatory reconsideration.
If unsuccessful, people can take their appeal to a tribunal.
The DWP said mandatory reconsiderations were introduced to ensure claimants received the right decision without having to go to court.
Critics say the process is stressful, does not give claimants enough time to gather evidence to support their appeal and many wrong decisions continue to be made at Mandatory Reconsideration stage, despite recent improvements.
What happened during the pandemic?
The number of benefits appeals being heard at tribunal fell year on year during the coronavirus pandemic.
The DWP said it had made recent changes including giving decision makers more time to contact people to ask for further information to support their benefit claim at both the first decision and the mandatory reconsideration stage.