Legal costs rise to £5m in flood of appeals over PIP refusals in Northern Ireland
The legal cost of reassessing applications for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) in Northern Ireland has soared to almost £5m, with thousands of appeal cases yet to be heard by a tribunal.
The Department for Communities (DfC) has confirmed that the cost of three tribunal panels has reached £4,907,294 since the controversial benefit payments were introduced in 2016.
The disclosure was made in response to a Freedom of Information request by DUP MLA Carla Lockhart.
The department also revealed that almost 5,600 appeal cases which were adjourned have been relisted for hearing - which means the bill is set to rise even higher.
Mrs Lockhart has called for a complete overhaul of the process in light of the "scandalous" cost.
"There needs to be a root-and-branch review of how these awards are determined," she said.
"The exuberant cost is unjustifiable and scandalous.
"This money should be going to the most vulnerable in our society."
Statistics show that 193,990 PIP applications have been made as of February this year, with 88% already processed.
But of the 171,750 cases dealt with, 32% were refused payments, resulting in a total of 48,880 appeals.
Over 9,000 decisions have so far been amended as a result of the mandatory reconsideration process which is still ongoing.
This accounts for around a fifth (19.4%) of appeals which have been processed to date.
Mrs Lockhart said she has heard many "horror stories" of people suffering from lifelong illnesses, including multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease, who have been declined PIPs.
Some individuals who were awarded zero points have waited as long as eight months for their appeal to be heard.
"I also know a man with prostate cancer who suffers severe back problems - he has just launched an appeal after being awarded zero points despite his doctor saying he is not fit to work," Mrs Lockhart said.
"One woman with COPD who was in receipt of high-rate Disability Living Allowance is also appealing after being awarded zero points.
"I am disgusted at how some people are being treated."
The Upper Bann representative claimed that arguments about whether or not solicitors on the tribunal are qualified to properly interpret medical notes has held up hearings, which often run on for hours longer than scheduled.
"Many cases have been adjourned over a whole legal wrangle about whether legal experts are indemnified to read medical documents," Mrs Lockhart added.
The MLA also claimed that GPs are becoming more reluctant to give notes to patients who are expected to provide the documents at the appeal hearing, giving the panel a chance to read them for the first time.
"I welcome a robust system to prevent abuse, but it must be client-focused," she said.
"Just a few tweaks to this intrusive and intimidating system could reduce costs significantly.
"Medical notes are key and they are being scrutinised far too late in the process."
The DfC did not respond with comment.
Last year Walter Rader, who was commissioned by the department to review its process, found that "a rigid one-size-fits-all" privatised assessment cannot respond to the needs of all claimants.
According to the DfC website, 67% of all claims have been awarded, with the average processing time taking 12 weeks.
It also states that 78% of DLA reassessments have been successfully approved, with 41% of all awards allocated to people whose main disability is psychiatric disorder.