• Frances Brown

The Impact of Virtual Courts on Disability Access

Since the 1941 Beveridge Report modern British society has prided itself on a system of social security. Today it is the largest sector of public spending with GBP 285 billion being invested in services such as disability benefits, child benefits, and carer’s allowance.


For example, if you are too ill to provide for yourself, you are entitled to Personal Independence Payments (PIP). Depending on your condition, you could be entitled to between GBP 23.60 and GBP 151.40 a week to support yourself. PIP is incredibly important to those with disabilities as well as their families in order to meet their everyday needs, particularly when many disabilities, which include physical and mental health problems, inhibit a person’s ability to work and provide for themselves.


The process to become a recipient of PIP includes assessments by a healthcare professional to determine your support level. If you are unhappy with the level of support you are assigned, an appeals process is in place that can lead to a tribunal hearing in front of a judge, doctor, and disability member to review your case.


Like most things in 2020, COVID-19 has immensely affected the process of appeals for PIP. Appeals have moved to virtual hearings over the phone instead of face-to-face hearings in court. But is a virtual tribunal better or worse for the appellants? Does it make the system more comfortable and less daunting for the disabled appealing their case? Or is face-to-face interaction by the various parties critical to the integrity and fairness of the process?


Firstly, how are virtual tribunal hearings a disadvantage?


One specific negative is the inability of people with certain disabilities to partake in virtual hearings over the phone. For those who are deaf phone hearings are impossible. This has sadly led to people with hearing difficulties having their court date pushed back several months simply due to their specific disability preventing them from partaking in a virtual hearing. With 1 in 6 of the United Kingdom's adult population affected by hearing loss, this is a struggle for many people. So, it is clear virtual tribunal hearings do not work for everyone.


Another widely relatable reason for the downside of virtual tribunal hearings is failures with technology. Time-wasting, poor connections, and breaking up of calls during important questioning periods should not be underestimated in their impact on the fluency of the process. In particular, for the judge, doctor, and disability member trying to establish the condition of the disabled appellant, visual appearance, body language, and non-verbal cues through responses to your questions are massively important in establishing someone’s condition. The importance of these parties making the correct decision regarding the appeal has immense real-life consequences on the appellants. The accuracy of the process is therefore crucial.


But then again, do virtual hearings come with huge benefits as well?


For sufferers with certain mental health problems, the idea of traveling to court to justify the need for support due to a disability in front of a group of strangers would understandably be frightening and triggering. Virtual hearings, therefore, enable some appellants to sit comfortably in a safe space at home and discuss their case over the phone.


The pandemic has highlighted the importance of health, and to those with poor health, life can be tremendously difficult. For sufferers with long-term physical health problems traveling to your local city for your court hearing is much easier said than done. You may need a family member or friend to accompany you, possibly meaning they will have to take time off work. For many disabled people, their mobility may be poor, so the prospect of a virtual hearing is far more accessible than an in-person one.


Overall, it would be wrong and blinkered to deem either a virtual or in-person appeal beneficial or disadvantageous to every appellant with any kind of disability. The complex and sometimes ignored fact is that every disability is unique - it affects individuals in different ways and to a stranger can appear either immediately obvious or completely unnoticeable.


This specific example of social security law may not be the first issue that comes to mind when thinking about the consequences of COVID-19. The impact this support, or the lack thereof, has on the disabled is huge. However, as of the end of January 2019, nearly 4.2 million PIP claims were made, emphatically showing that disability affects many people within the UK and should not be ignored. In the words of social critic and author Noam Chomsky:


“Social Security is based on a principle. It’s based on the principle that you care about other people. You care whether the widow across town, a disabled widow, is going to be able to have food to eat.”


Social security is the largest expense in the UK budget. Yet, this is understandably so when so many in our society need additional help to make ends meet. £285 billion helps so many families and individuals simply make it through the day and have food on the table.


Moreover, after four months of complete lockdown, economic turmoil, closure of sports and leisure facilities, and the cancellation of non-urgent healthcare, the nation’s physical and mental health will undoubtedly have been affected, either directly or indirectly, by COVID-19. This begs the question: could this pandemic lead to a nation of poor health and could these repercussions be seen in the rise of people suffering from physical or mental disabilities?