BAS’ Vision for Beneficiaries (part 5): Reviews
Beneficiaries get a very raw deal from dispute resolution compared to accident compensation claimants, according to Christchurch’s Beneficiary Advisory Service (“BAS”) on their fifth segment in a series of suggestions for the future based on their vast experience helping people on benefits.
Speaker for BAS, Rebecca Occleston, says that “although we totally agree with criticisms of the ACC dispute resolution system, we would like to see a similar (if improved) model to ACC applying to our clients”. She adds, “whilst flawed, it is immeasurably fairer than the system currently in place under the Social Security Act”.
Occleston pointed to the previous Government’s independent review of the ACC dispute resolution system, following a critical report on its operation, whilst it ignored an equally damning report on the operation of the social security review and appeal process. Here, she asked why the parents of a child needing a child disability allowance under the social security system should be treated less fairly in terms of process than the parents of a child with similar disabilities but resulting from an accident.
Amongst other things, for example, Occleston said that accident compensation reviewers must act independently when conducting a review; they must put aside policy and procedure followed by the Corporation when making their decisions; and limited costs are available for representation. In contrast benefits review committees are not independent of Work and Income and have been criticised on appeal for many deficiencies, including issuing their reports under false identities; they are not required by law to ignore the Ministry’s policy, which has been shown in the past to be inconsistent in some respects with the law itself; and no costs are available for representation despite the acknowledged complexity of the legal issues involved.
Although a case can then be taken to an independent Appeal Authority, that process is exceptionally complex and timeliness is a pressing issue. Here Occleston referred to recent decisions where it took a year for a beneficiary to establish that she should have received help, at a point in her life when she was in considerable need, in poor health, and living in a car; where Work and Income delayed an appeal relating to supported living payment by failing for almost two years to provide a report required by law “as soon as possible”; and where a benefit was wrongly suspended by way of a sanction, taking almost two years to reach the Appeal Authority from the benefit review (before then proceeding to the High Court).
“Also,” Occleston points out, “look at Ms F’s case in the High Court decision that has just been released (clarifying that loans are not income). If this had been handled properly at the review level, she would not have had to spend 8 years of her life fighting to achieve this decision that seems obvious to anyone you might ask!”
To make matters worse, said Occleston, unlike ACC, Work and Income is not bound by a legislative Code of Conduct, except in relation to veterans. This means, she said, that the review and appeal system is completely unable to deal with complaints around the behaviour of Work and Income employees in terms of matters like the process followed in interviews and the way in which decisions are reached. This is so despite significant and repeated criticisms by the Authority.
According to BAS, Occleston suggests, “there must be a better way”. She added that “basic common sense suggests that a decision-maker will act more carefully if they know that their decision will be open to effective independent review and – unsurprisingly – research consistently establishes the same thing. But it isn’t just about efficiency – we need an independent review system to ensure basic fairness for some of the our most vulnerable people in Aotearoa/New Zealand.”
Accident compensation review:
Report criticising social security review and appeal processes:
Appeal Authority/ High Court decisions:
On false identities used for benefit review committee members:
On beneficiary living in car:
On Ms F’s case:
On two-year delay: http://www.nzlii.org/nz/cases/NZSSAA/2017/14.html
On benefit suspension taking two years to reach Authority:
On poor process outside scope of appeal: