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Social Justice

Legacy benefits court case: Why claimants are still fighting for the £20 universal credit uplift

Legacy benefits claimants are appealing against a High Court decision they called “discriminatory”. Here’s all you need to know about the court case and why it’s important

Legacy benefits claimants are heading back to court to fight for their rights to keep their payments in line with universal credit. 

Four people receiving disability benefits took the government to court last year over its refusal to increase their benefits by £20 per week along with universal credit claimants during the pandemic. 

The High Court rejected the case last year in a decision that was described by lawyers and activists as a “national scandal” and “direct discrimination against disabled people”. 

The claimants sought permission to appeal that decision, and it will now be heard by the Court of Appeal on Wednesday December 7.

Here is everything you need to know about the legacy benefits court case, why it is important and what disability activists are hoping to achieve by appealing.

What are legacy benefits?

Legacy benefits are welfare payments such as employment and support allowance, which are mostly claimed by sick and disabled people who cannot work. People claiming legacy benefits will eventually be moved to universal credit, and it is not possible to make a new claim, but there are still many people receiving these benefits today. 

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There are six legacy benefits: income-based jobseekers allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit. If you’re claiming one of these, you will be moved onto universal credit at some point before December 2024.

What was the £20 universal credit uplift?

At the start of lockdown in 2020, the government introduced a temporary £20 weekly increase for people receiving universal credit and working tax credits. It was designed to support those struggling as the pandemic took an economic toll on the country. 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said at the time that the uplift, alongside increased support for workers, “will take hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty”. 

But the increase was not applied to all benefits, including the employment support allowance, jobseekers’ allowance and income support. It meant many claimants of legacy benefits missed out on £1,500-worth of payments. 

It was initially expected to end in April 2021, but Rishi Sunak extended the increase until September. The increase was officially pulled on October 6, confirmed by Rishi Sunak at the Conservative party conference.

Why did legacy benefits claimants take the DWP to court?

Four people receiving disability benefits, backed by a team of lawyers at Osbornes Law, took the DWP to court in 2021 over the refusal to give them the £20-per-week uplift. 

They argued the “ongoing difference in treatment between those in receipt of universal credit and those in receipt of legacy benefits was discriminatory” and went against the European Convention on Human Rights. 

There is a greater proportion of disabled people receiving legacy benefits compared to universal credit.

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What did the High Court decide?

The case was granted by the High Court in April 2021, and a final hearing was heard in November. According to Osbornes Law, the High Court “accepted that there was discrimination towards disabled people on legacy benefits” but the judge ruled this difference in treatment was “justified”. 

The claimants lost a legal challenge against the High Court in February 2022.

Mr Justice Swift admitted it was “obvious that any person required to rely only on that level of income [would] suffer hardship” but denied arguments that the policy had been discriminatory and ruled in favour of the government.

Lawyer Jamie Burton of Doughty Street Chambers, who led the case, said the decision will “pile misery upon misery for hundreds of thousands of people”. 

“This is a national scandal,” he added. “Let it never be ignored again that our social security system is purposely ungenerous to the point of being unfit for purpose. Extreme poverty is baked into the system and during the pandemic it got even worse.”

Paula Peters, a disability activist from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “I was furious. I’m a legacy benefit claimant myself. It was really disheartening during the pandemic when we were refused the £20. We have additional costs with disability and that money would have made a difference between a lot of us struggling to manage when many of us were shielding.”

A DWP spokesperson said in April: “The decision not to include the £20 uplift in legacy benefits was recently unsuccessfully challenged in the High Court on the basis of discrimination, with the court concluding the regulations were justified in all circumstances.”

Why are the legacy benefits claimants appealing the decision?

The legal team launched an application to appeal the ruling soon after the High Court rejected the challenge in February. 

Solicitors for Osbornes Law, which is representing the claimants, called it a “straightforward failure to treat like cases alike” which was “profoundly unfair, arbitrary and unjustified”.

“The DWP discriminated against us,” Peters said. “They completely ignored us. As legacy benefit claimants, we were forgotten. It was a really nonsensical decision. We’re hoping with the appeal tomorrow, the federal judge will see that we were discriminated against and right that wrong and to give us the support we are entitled to.”

A disability activist who goes by the name Ben Claimant added: “We are talking about some of the most marginalised, poorest people. The DWP’s own research shows disabled people struggle much more than non-disabled people. Disabled people make up the majority who lost out (along with carers and single parents – people largely without a voice).

“The £20 would not necessarily fill the gap but it would have helped to alleviate the financial strain they were suffering – and psychologically, it would have made us feel included and that we matter. For many of us on older benefits, we do not look at this case in isolation.

“Since 2010 we have lost out through austerity, benefit freezes, increased conditionality and benefit sanctions. We’ve had our public services taken away and we’ve been demonised by politicians through the media. Not getting the £20 added insult to all those injuries. If we win this appeal then it will mean so much to millions of people. It would be a huge result for us.”

Read more of The Big Issue’s coverage of the legacy benefits court case:

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The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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