Family of man who starved to death after benefits cut take DWP to court

The family of a man who starved to death after his benefits were cut have taken the government to court.

Errol Graham, 57, died in June 2018, eight months after he stopped receiving Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

Relatives said Mr Graham, who suffered from mental health issues, was found in his flat by bailiffs, having ‘cut himself off from the world’.

An inquest concluded his cause of death was starvation, according to documents submitted to the court.

Lawyers acting for his family have told the High Court that withdrawing financial support for vulnerable people can leave them at risk of ‘serious harm’.

Family members found Mr Graham’s curtains closed, a single light bulb, no gas and electric and little food when they visited his home to clear his belongings following his death.

He had not responded to the DWP when they got in touch, and his benefits were then terminated.

Alison Turner, the fiancee of Mr Graham’s son, is bringing the legal claim, arguing that the decision to halt his benefits, and the Department for Work and Pensions’s ESA safeguarding policy, are unlawful.

The Government is opposing the challenge.

The family claims the policy puts the burden on vulnerable benefits claimants to prove that they had good cause for failing to attend a meeting or to respond to communications and that this is contrary to employment and equality laws.

They also claim the policy fails to make it clear that the DWP has a duty to make inquiries to obtain information about the state of a claimant’s health so they can properly assess whether they had good cause for missing an appointment or failing to respond to communications.

At a remote hearing today, Adam Straw, barrister for Ms Turner, told Mr Justice Bourne the claim concerns ‘a well-recognised cohort of ESA claimants who are unable, because of mental disabilities, to engage with, or respond to the DWP.

He said: ‘When an applicant claims ESA, they may be asked to attend a
medical examination or to return a questionnaire.

‘If they fail to do so without good cause then they are determined as
having capability to work.’

In documents before the court, Mr Straw said ESA claimants are ‘frequently unable to respond to or engage with the DWP because of mental disability or illness.’

He says: ‘ESA claimants are by definition vulnerable due to physical
or mental health problems.

‘A person may only qualify for ESA if her capability for work is limited by her physical or mental condition, or by reason of a disease or disablement her health would be at significant risk if benefits were terminated.’

Mr Straw also argued: ‘Withdrawing benefits for a vulnerable claimant like Mr Graham will often put that individual at risk of serious harm.

‘That is made clear by DWP figures that 34% of claimants are awarded ESA on the basis that otherwise there would, because of a disease or disablement, be a significant risk to their health.

‘It is a momentous decision which will often entail a sudden and complete loss of income – leaving the person destitute without food and housing.’

Mr Straw argued the DWP’s ESA safeguarding policy is still unlawful despite changes made last year, after the family issued their challenge.

In written documents, Mr Straw said Mr Graham had been paid ESA since 2013 due to a long-term illness which meant he would be at significant risk if his benefits were withdrawn.

‘In late 2017 the defendant made several attempts to contact Mr Graham, but he did not respond. In consequence the defendant terminated his benefits on the basis that Mr Graham had not proved that he had a good cause for not responding.

‘That was despite the defendant having no up-to-date information about whether or not Mr Graham’s mental illness was the reason he did not respond.’

Mr Straw argued the policy is unlawful because: ‘It is well recognised that a substantial number of claimants will be prevented from responding to the DWP or putting forward evidence to show they had a good cause for not responding because of mental illness.

‘In such cases, placing the onus or burden on the claimant to prove why he or she had good cause is contrary to case law and inconsistent with the objectives of the legislation.

‘Yet the policy places that onus of proving good cause on the claimant.

‘The policy is therefore unlawful as it incorporates an error of law, provides a misleading impression of what the law is and permits or encourages unlawful decision making.’

The barrister said there is a duty on the DWP to ‘make all reasonable inquiries to obtain sufficient information to be able to properly assess whether the claimant has a good cause arising from his health or disability, including where necessary from external individuals and bodies.’

‘That is a rigorous duty in part because many such claimants will be at serious risk of harm or death if their benefits are terminated.’

The hearing is expected to last two days, with the judge giving his ruling at a later date.

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