Question on Social Welfare Appeals

-   Alan Farrell TD

To ask the Minister for Social Protection the steps she has taken to reduce the waiting time for social welfare appeals and details of the success to date; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

Answered by Minister Joan Burton.

There has been a rapid and sustained increase in the number of appeals received in the Social Welfare Appeals Office since 2009 which has placed extraordinary pressure on the office.  Up to 2009, the average number of appeals received was 15,000 per annum whereas in 2012, the office received 35,484 appeals.  

In order to manage this increasing workload, significant resources and efforts have been put into reducing backlogs and improving appeals processing times for appellants, including the assignment of 15 additional Appeals Officers, in addition to 10 former Community Welfare Service Appeals Officers who joined the appeals office in 2011, bringing the total number of serving Appeals Officers to 41; reviewing and improving business processes; and implementing a new operating model within the appeals office.

In addition, a major programme of process redesign and modernisation is currently underway in the Department in relation to many of its scheme areas, aimed at reducing backlogs and reducing the time taken by the Department to respond to requests from the appeals office for submissions in relation to appeals.

These measures have led to improvements in processing times and a significant increase in the number of appeals finalised from 17,787 in 2009 to 32,558 in 2012.  The Chief Appeals Officer expects to finalise 6,000 more cases in 2013 than in 2012.  Good progress is also now being made in reducing the number of appeals on hand from 20,414 at 1 January 2013 to 16,542 at 1 July 2013.  

The average waiting time for appeals peaked in 2011 when the average time for an oral hearing was 52.5 weeks and for a summary decision was 25.1 weeks.  In 2012 these times improved by 10.3 weeks when the average time for an oral hearing dropped to 39.5 weeks while the time for a summary decision increased slightly to 27.8 weeks.  This improvement has continued with the average processing time up to June 2013 reducing to 36.2 weeks for an oral hearing and 27.6 weeks for a summary decision.

These processing times are calculated from the registration date of the appeal to the date of its finalisation.  They include all activities during this period including time spent awaiting any clarification from the appellant, time in the Department for comments by the Deciding Officer on the grounds of appeal put forward by the appellant, and any further investigation, examination or assessment by the Department’s Inspectors and Medical Assessors that is deemed necessary.  For example in cases of schemes which include medical criteria such as disability allowance or invalidity pension, the time taken by the Department may include a review by a different medical assessor to the one who initially examined the case, and there may even be a third review by a medical assessor where additional medical evidence is submitted.  A considerable period of time is also added when an oral hearing is required because of the logistics involved in this process.  While this process carries an inherent delay in terms of finalising an appeal, it also crystallises the flexibility and accessibility of the appeals system.

By its nature and because it is a quasi-judicial function, the processing of appeals takes time and reflects the fact that, by definition, the appeal process cannot be a quick one.  However, if  an appellant’s means are insufficient to meet their needs, it is open to them to contact their local Community Welfare Services concerning their eligibility for Supplementary Welfare Allowance while their appeal is pending.  

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