Anger as Derry benefit tribunals set to take place in courthouse

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A prominent welfare rights worker says some of Derry’s most vulnerable people will be “hung out to dry” under new plans to hold benefit tribunals at the city’s courthouse.

Galliagh based advice counsellor Jimmy Doherty says the move could see children who are being assessed for disaibility living allowance forced to mingle with criminals in the court building. Mr Doherty, who is due to represent a client at a hearing in the Bishop Street courthouse in the coming weeks, says he was not consulted about the decision to hear cases there.

He says that while other venues including the City Hotel and Millennium Forum are currently used as a setting for appeals, he believes all hearings will eventually move to the courthouse.

“It’s simply a costcutting exercise,” he said. “Using the courthouse for appeals won’t cost the government anything, it seems the fact that it’s a free building is the only thing which has been considered here,” said Mr. Doherty.

Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney has submitted a question to the Minister for Social Development Nelson McCausland on the issue and says the decision will add to the pressures already heaped on welfare rights workers, as well as worsening the stress of those already struggling on benefits.

“Firstly, as these appeals may happen simultaneously in various venues, the ability for appellants to have representation at the hearings will be restricted. Welfare rights workers in Derry and elected representatives have been doing their best in difficult circumstances and increasing demand to provide effective representation at Tribunal hearings but will struggle to be in two venues at once,” he said.

“The venues in Derry that have been used for tribunals over many years are far more suitable for appeal hearings as they are less formal and intimidating venues for the public. Requesting people to appear at a Courthouse for their Tribunal appearance will significantly add to the stress those struggling with the denial of benefits are already suffering.”

Mr. Doherty, who is based at the Galliagh Women’s Group, says the move is directly targeting and stigmatising the poorest people in the city.

“The trauma this will cause for people with serious mental health issues will be huge. Also, people assume appeals are all about adults of working age but there are a lot of cases with children and young adults around removal of or failure to be awarded disability living allowance. In these cases, it’s sometimes requested that the child in question is presented and the fact that we’re now looking at a situation where a child would have to attend the local courthouse is totally unacceptable.

“We also have to remember that some people with physical disabilites will also have to use the building and there are issues around that too. This is just a new twist targeting the poor of this city which should not have happened. The most vulnerable people are being hung out to dry with these decisions,” he added.