Disabled people who moved onto the crisis-hit Universal Credit benefits scheme were unlawfully discriminated against when their income suddenly dropped, a High Court judge said today.
Mr Justice Lewis said rules governing the transfer of those with severe care needs onto the new system “at present give rise to unlawful discrimination”.
However, in a victory for the government, the judge found against the claim brought by two severely disabled men who said that the Universal Credit system overall left them unable to meet many of their basic needs.
The judge also ruled against the mens’ claim that Universal Credit should directly replicate the more generous system it replaced.
Despite confusion around the implications of the ruling, the law firm Leigh Day, which represents the two men, welcomed the judge’s decision to grant a declaration and described his judgement as a “landmark”.
One of the claimants, a terminally ill 52-year-old suffering from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and Castleman’s Disease, lost out on premiums worth £178 a month when he was transferred onto Universal Credit.
The second claimant, a 36-year-old with severe mental health issues, saw his payments reduced by the same amount.
Both men live alone, without a carer.
The premiums for those with severe care needs total over £2,000 a year.
The men were not given any “top up” payments to ease their transition onto Universal Credit – so in effect, they suffered a sudden drop in income.
It was this particular situation which the judge found in a declaration to be unlawful.
The judge said: “In all the circumstances of the case, the operation of the implementation arrangements in the way they do is manifestly without reasonable foundation and fails to strike a fair balance.”
The judge said the Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, should now determine how to rectify the situation. But he refused her permission to appeal the judgement at the High Court, meaning any further challenge will need to be lodged at the Court of Appeal.
In a move which pre-empted Thursday’s verdict, McVey announced last week that so-called “transitional protections” for claimants with severe care needs, like those represented in the court challenge, would be put in place before they are moved onto Universal Credit.
She told the Commons in a written statement: ”[I]n order to support the transition for those individuals who live alone with substantial care needs and receive the severe disability premium, we are changing the system so that these claimants will not be moved to Universal Credit until they qualify for transitional protection.”
McVey also pledged to ensure those already on Universal Credit would be given an additional payment.
Universal Credit has been blamed for an increase in food bank use and homelessness, with last week’s announcement being the latest in a series of u-turns and backtracks by ministers.
Thursday’s ruling represents the first judicial review of the policy, which brings together six different benefits into one monthly payment and is due to roll out to all those receiving benefits by 2022.
A judicial review is concerned only with how decisions are made, not whether they are “right”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “The court found in our favour on three of the four points raised by the claimant. We will be applying to appeal on the one point the court found against the Department.
“This Government is committed to ensuring a strong system of support is in place for vulnerable people who are unable to work.”