"The rule of law means many things to many people, but its common thread is, first, that everyone must know, or be able to find out, the rules and laws by which their lives are regulated; and secondly, that everyone is entitled to challenge, whether by internal review mechanisms, by appeal or by judicial review, the lawfulness of their treatment."
In 2019, we published two reports looking at access to justice, digitalisation and universal credit (UC):
UC is ‘digital by default’ – meaning that it is mainly an online system. We are concerned about the effect this has on access to justice. Using evidence from our Early Warning System, the reports highlight how claimants are frequently left in the dark about their UC claim or award. Claimants are not provided with enough information about how their benefit has been calculated, or how to challenge a decision if they believe a mistake has been made. Claimants who do try to dispute a decision encounter roadblocks along the way.
Since we published the reports, the Department for Work and Pensions has made a number of changes to the information they give UC claimants, which go some way towards addressing some of the concerns we raised. However, there is still a lot of work to do to ensure that the administration of UC, which involves both digital and manual processes, is upholding rule of law principles. For example, it needs to made clearer to claimants both which rules the DWP is using to make decisions that affect them, and how they can challenge those decisions.
Why does this matter so much? In his foreword to our first report, Sir Stephen Sedley said that without this clarity:
“People in need are left to guess at and grope for things which should be clear and tangible. The consequences are not limited to over- or under-payment. They feed into the stress and worry that so many people managing on low incomes experience, which in turn can affect family life for children growing up in these environments.”
CPAG is delighted to have been awarded funding from the Legal Education Foundation and Open Society Foundations to conduct an in-depth review of UC and the extent to which it upholds rule of law principles. By conducting a thorough analysis of specific aspects of UC which are vital for claimants – the claims process, the calculations/decisions process, and the disputes process – we hope to identify the areas where UC is doing well, and the areas where rights are most at risk. Once identified, we plan to work with policy makers in government, the legal community and welfare rights advisers, and civil society to ensure we have a UC system that upholds rule of law principles and importantly protects the rights of individual claimants.
For more information about the project please contact Sophie Howes, Senior Policy and Research Officer at CPAG [email protected].
The Legal Education Foundation is delighted to be supporting this project.
This project is also supported in part by a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute in cooperation with the Information Program of the Open Society Foundations.