Administrative (in)justice? Appellants’ experiences of accessing justice in social security tribunals
This article looks at experiences of appellants in the first tier Tribunal (Social Security and Child Support) (‘Social Security Tribunal’ (SST)) in England to see how, ‘administrative justice’ is perceived, practised and experienced by vulnerable appellants at the sharp end of the system. We draw on observational data in 102 cases that were heard across six SSTs during a three-month period. While our focus is predominantly on the experience of the users in the SST, we also look at the justice of the initial administrative decisions which led to the appeal, as seen through the lens of the cases we observed in the SST. We argue that appellants were able to participate in the tribunal process in a narrow sense in that they were able to attend and explain their case; that the inquisitorial approach elicited the information necessary to reach a decision, especially in the majority of cases when appellants were not legally represented. However, we argue that appellants were often failed by the process more generally: the initial decision, mandatory reconsideration, inadequate help in preparing cases/representation, the physical process of getting to the tribunal, and disorganisation in the tribunal system. We therefore argue that our data suggest while there was tribunal justice, at least in the narrow sense of the term, there was broader administrative injustice to the detriment of the thousands of claimants who are forced through the stressful process of seeking mandatory reconsideration and then bringing claims to secure entitlement to benefits.