High Court rules DWP in breach of equality laws
The High Court found that the Department for Work and Pensions unlawfully failed to provide blind people with accessible communications regarding their benefits.
Yusuf Ali Osman, a benefits claimant who is registered blind, brought a judicial review of the DWP’s methods of communicating with disabled people after it failed to provide him with important information about his benefits in ways he could access.
Osman was represented by Leigh Day. The firm said in a press release on 28 July:
Dr Osman alleged Work and Pensions Secretary, Mel Stride, was in breach of his legal obligation to communicate with blind and visually impaired people in an accessible manner.
The High Court ruled in Dr Osman’s favour after his lawyers at Leigh Day argued the DWP’s systems were putting him at a substantial disadvantage compared to sighted benefits recipients. Dr Osman’s case was backed by the charity RNIB, which says his experience is common and has serious consequences for blind and partially sighted people, including their benefits being stopped and penalties being imposed.
Dr Osman, a 44-year-old self-employed worker from Croydon, can only access correspondence in either electronic format (such as text sent in the body of an email, or as an accessible PDF or Word attachment) or in Braille. However, despite repeated requests, the DWP continued to send him information about his disability and employment benefits in printed hard copy letters or as scanned inaccessible PDFs attached to emails. Documents in these formats cannot be used with a Screenreader, which many blind and visually impaired people rely on to read out the text of a document. Dr Osman received some letters from the DWP in Braille, but these were often many weeks late, meaning he risked missing important deadlines.
Dr Osman receives annual correspondence from the DWP about his claims for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP). He also receives regular correspondence about the rules that govern how much he is permitted to work as an access consultant. In the period from 2020 to March 2023, he received 21 letters which were either inaccessible and / or significantly delayed by the need to prepare an accessible version (compared with 2 timely, accessible, letters).
The court declared that the DWP had discriminated against registered blind and sight impaired people receiving Personal Independent Payments (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) who had requested certain alternative formats in a period up to 13 September 2022 by failing to make reasonable adjustments to its policy of sending hard copy letters, in breach of the Equality Act 2010. The duty to make reasonable adjustments arises where a policy or practice puts disabled people at a substantial disadvantage compared to people who are not disabled and includes a duty to provide accessible information.
The court’s order recorded that:
• The DWP apologises to Dr Osman for the way in which his correspondence was sent.
• Both parties note that the DWP has subsequently altered some of the processes that were in place up to 13 September 2022 (the date the Court gave Dr Osman’s case permission to proceed to a final hearing), and that further changes are being implemented, developed, or considered.
• The DWP will update Dr Osman as to the progress of these changes in six and 12 months.
• Dr Osman will be invited to act as a tester for the changes to the IT system for PIP, and to the changes proposed for the DWP-wide technical solution.
The court also ordered, after the parties reached agreed terms, that the DWP pay Dr Osman £7,000 compensation in settlement of the claim and pay his legal costs.
Dr Osman is represented by Leigh Day solicitor Kate Egerton and supported in his claim by RNIB.
Dr Yusuf Osman said: “The High Court has agreed how poorly the DWP treats people like me, who are registered blind or partially sighted. The DWP has continued to send me important correspondence about my benefits that I am unable to read, or that has been unreasonably delayed, even after I issued this claim. The DWP clearly does not have a system that allows them to consistently identify, record and share disabled people’s communication preferences which means we keep receiving inaccessible or unreasonably delayed correspondence. The DWP needs to take more radical steps, such as new IT systems, to guarantee it will improve the way it communicates with blind and visually impaired people. I can only hope that they improve their practices in future or I may be forced to take further action.”
Leigh Day solicitor Kate Egerton said: “This ruling highlights how the DWP has repeatedly ignored complaints from blind and visually impaired individuals over its failure to send them accessible correspondence. Equality legislation is clear that the DWP should communicate with disabled people in a manner that enables them to access important information about their benefits on an equal basis to everyone else. This judicial review has established that the DWP was acting unlawfully in the way it communicates with blind and partially sighted benefits claimants. We remain unconvinced that the steps the DWP has taken since this claim was started are sufficient to meet its legal obligations and have reserved the right to bring this matter back to court in future if matters do not improve.”
RNIB senior legal adviser Samantha Fothergill said: “Dr Osman’s case is one of many complaints we hear from blind and partially sighted people receiving communications from DWP in inaccessible formats. It’s therefore a huge step forward that the High Court has now declared the arrangements put in place by DWP to be unlawful. DWP need to do better for people living with sight loss and we hope this judgement will incentivise them to ensure their communications are accessible.