Published: 00:01, 02 November 2017
A disabled woman was denied vital benefits for 10 months after health assessors cancelled her appointment – and then penalised her for failing to turn up.
Teresa Geale, who has several serious conditions which prevent her from working, was on a bus five minutes away from the work capability assessment session in Canterbury when she received a voicemail telling her staff were running behind and it would have to be re-arranged.
But a few days later, the 63-year-old received a letter asking why she did not attend.
Despite explaining the situation and providing proof, she was told by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that because she had failed to show without good reason, her entitlement to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) had ended.
The former pub manager’s income was slashed as a result, forcing her to make cutbacks and sign on at the JobCentre – despite doctors deeming her unfit to work.
Speaking from her home in Epple Bay Road, Birchington, she said: “Financially, I was getting half of what I was before.
"I had to deny myself things, make food last longer, and so on. The stress of it also made my illness worse.”
Almost a year on, Mrs Geale has now won a legal battle to have her benefits reinstated after a tribunal judge took less than five minutes to find in her favour.
She said: “It’s ridiculous the way they’ve carried on. They were calling me a liar the whole time.
"I don’t know if it was down to utter incompetence or utter arrogance.
"It's ridiculous the way they've carried on... they were calling me a liar the whole time" - Teresa Geale
“I’ve worked hard all my life, but I’m no longer able to.
"I had to sign on for Jobseekers’ Allowance, but my doctor said I wasn’t fit to work.
"Plus, who’s going to employ someone with health issues who’s two years away from receiving their state pension?
"It was a very stressful time.”
Mrs Geale’s case was taken on by the University of Kent’s Law Clinic after an earlier tribunal wrongly ruled the appointment could not have been cancelled.
This was despite Mrs Geale providing her bus ticket to the appointment as evidence, as well as screenshots showing calls to the assessment centre in response to a voicemail cancelling the session.
At the appeal hearing, at the Ashford Tribunal Centre in August, Judge Timothy Peter Fagg said: “I find it extraordinary that her evidence was not accepted and it has taken this long to overturn the original decision.
"I trust that the Respondent (the DWP) will reimburse her for her aborted bus fare.”
Describing her relief, Mrs Geale said: “We were in with the judge for less than five minutes, when the whole saga had taken nearly a year.
"I would have loved to have seen my face when the judge said I’d won.
"It was always in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t.”
Mrs Geale managed pubs including The Rodney in Garlinge before her health deteriorated in 2007, when she started claiming the benefit.
She suffers from osteo-arthiritis which prevents her from walking properly on one of her feet, low bone density called osteopenia and curvature of the spine caused by spondylosis.
She also experiences occular migraines which cause temporary blindness without warning. They can be brought on by stress, and have become more frequent since her benefits ordeal began.
The Kent Law Clinic team says it ensured Mrs Geale was reimbursed for the 10 months of benefits owed to her, as well as the £6.40 bus ticket.
Mrs Geale has also asked the clinic to make a formal complaint about her case to the regional chairman of the Social Entitlement Chamber, which oversees the social security appeals service.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “Following Ms Geale’s appeal, her benefit payments were reinstated at the higher rate and all her backdated payments were made.”
Solicitor Graham Tegg, a benefits law expert from the Kent Law Clinic, says Mrs Geale’s case is typical of the DWP’s dealings with many welfare claimants.
“We decided to take the case on because it’s an example all too frequent of the everyday injustices that local people experience at the hands of the DWP,” he said.
“Mrs Geale had gone through the tribunal justice system and they had found against her, against all of the legal principles.
“The reason the judgement is very welcome is because it shows that individuals’ own common sense and their notion of what is right and proper is vindicated and shown to be correct.
“If you persist in the end, you succeed. But it shouldn’t take a solicitor with 20-plus years of social security law to point out that the principle that was decided over 40 years ago is correct.”
The principle in social security law is the claimant is to be believed unless the authority makes a decision the person is either not telling the truth or what they say is inherently improbable.
“The DWP making an administrative error is not inherently improbable – sadly it is an everyday fact.
“This is perhaps the worst example, but we are frequently asked to advise people with physical or mental health problems unable to attend DWP or disability service appointments.
"Very often they are either not believed or, worse, they think they won’t be believed.”