Last year, the average time to process appeals by the Appeals Office was more than 32 weeks.
The department itself took an average of 12.9 weeks to pass requested information on to the Appeals Office, while the average processing time for an appeal which required an oral hearing was 52.5 weeks.
Legal rights group FLAC yesterday called for a root-and-branch reform of the appeals system and outlined a list of concerns about the process, including lengthy delays in decisions and the Appeals Office’s lack of independence.
It also highlighted inadequate consistency and transparency in decision-making and access to legal advice and representation for those appealing decisions.
Launching the report, Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly drew attention to the importance for those appealing decisions of having the chance to put their case at an oral appeal hearing.
“As set out in the report, the success rate for appeals which include an oral hearing has been consistently higher than the success rate for appeals decided summarily, ” she said.
FLAC director general Noeline Blackwell said the lack of transparency and the lack of consistency in decision-making meant the appeals system “does not offer an effective remedy or a system that people can understand”.
Besides the report, FLAC launched three guides to aid the public in accessing social welfare: A checklist for applying for a Social Welfare payment; a guide to making a Social Welfare appeal; and a guide to the Habitual Residence Condition.
Policy and advocacy officer with FLAC Saoirse Brady pointed out that members of the public are having to deal with complex issues of law when making an appeal, without any legal advice.
The report and guides are free to download from the FLAC website at www.flac.ie
Mary (not her real name), from West Cork, had to suffer through five years of hearings and appeals to the Department of Social Protection before she received her one-parent family allowance.
Mary explained: “In October of 2006, my husband left the family home. I was receiving no maintenance and I had children, all of whom were under the age of eight.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a permanent situation so it wasn’t until the following January that I applied for the lone parent allowance. Six months later, I was refused.”
While the department assessed her income to be close to nothing, Mary was refused largely because of the capital value of a second property owned by herself and her ex-husband — despite receiving no financial gain from the property.
Mary made a second application in Jun 2008, with the support of MABS, and was refused again. She appealed in May 2009. This was denied.
Finally, in Mar 2011, along with MABS who pursued her case vigorously, Mary made yet another appeal to the chief appeals officer, who upheld the appeal last December.
She received her first payment in February, and back payments in June.
“I would advise anyone in my situation to go to MABS,” said Mary. “ I don’t know what I would have done without them.”
Conall Ó Fátharta