AT THE END of March 2020, until October 2021, the standard allowance element of Universal Credit (UC) in the UK was increased by approximately £20 per week.
The standard allowance is the element of UC that is intended to cover basic living costs. There was no corresponding increase for those on so called ‘legacy benefits’, including Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) and Income Support (IS).
Four claimants brought a challenge in the High Court in relation to the UK government’s failure to apply a similar increase to legacy benefits. Two of the claimants were in receipt of ESA and the third and fourth claimants were in receipt of IS and JSA.
The claimants argued that this ongoing difference in treatment between those in receipt of UC and those in receipt of legacy benefits was discriminatory, contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Court accepted that there were a greater proportion of disabled persons in receipt of legacy benefits, compared to disabled persons receiving UC and that disabled persons in receipt of legacy benefits were in an analogous position to disabled persons in receipt of UC.
Whilst the Court accepted that there was discrimination towards disabled people on legacy benefits, the judge ruled that the difference in treatment was justified. Mr Justice Swift (giving judgment in this case) accepted the justification put forward by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (SSWP), that the increase to the standard allowance of UC was done with the intention of providing additional support to those people who lost their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and were forced to claim UC for the first time. Mr Justice Swift accepted that using the increase in UC to cushion the loss of employment or reduction in income was a legitimate objective.
Whilst the Court accepted that the regulations increasing the rate of UC in March 2020 (and those extending it in March 2021) did not distinguish between new UC claimants and people already in receipt of UC (with the effect being that all UC claimants received the uplift), Mr Justice Swift did not consider this affected the justification advanced by the SSWP.
At the hearing, the court had been presented with evidence that, those new to benefits tended to have higher rates of savings and were better able to meet the costs of the pandemic as a result. The judgment did acknowledge the very low level of income provided by legacy benefits and the hardship those in receipt of these benefits must have faced during the pandemic. However, Mr Justice Swift did not consider that this was legally relevant to the justification advanced by the SSWP.
Responding to the ruling, a spokesperson for the Sheffield group of Disabled People Against Cuts released the following statement on social media: “Firstly, we want to say a big thank you to the four claimants that brought this case to the High Court, but sadly today Mr Justice Swift has ruled that the failure to apply the £20 a week uplift to people in receipt of legacy benefits was justified. This despite his own acknowledgement that the treatment of Disabled People in relation of this issue was discriminatory. We are absolutely gutted, but we’re angry too. It basically feels like a court has ruled that, with regards to the uplift, our lives are worth less than anyone else’s. That our needs are less significant. We can’t put into words how much that hurts. The last couple of years have been so very hard.
“Somewhere there is a woman the same age as me, with the same disabilities as me, who did receive the £20 a week uplift – not that I begrudge it to her – but this is simply because she will have been on Universal Credit at the time that this was applied. The only difference between the two of us will have been the name of the benefit that we received. Our needs, however, were exactly the same. That is why this decision is not only discriminatory, but unjust. This challenge has become about so much more than the issue of the missing £1500 for legacy claimants. It’s about fairness, it’s about equality and justice. Once again, thank you to those who stepped up and challenged this, we will of course fully support any decision to appeal. Solidarity.”
The claimants’ legal team is currently giving consideration to whether there are merits to appeal to the Court of Appeal.
The claimants were represented by William Ford of Osbornes Law, Jamie Burton QC of Doughty Street Chambers and Desmond Rutledge of Garden Court Chambers.