The Appeal Journey
Many of the procedures which impact on appeal processing times are underpinned by the Social Welfare (Appeals) Regulations (Statutory Instrument No. 108 of 1998 (as amended)) and are in place in order to ensure that every appellant is given the opportunity to make their case and have all of their evidence fully considered by an Appeals Officer.
When an appeal is received in the appeals office it is registered and the processing time is measured from that date. As required by regulations, the appeals office then notifies the Department that the appeal has been lodged. That notification requires that any file or documents relevant to the appeal is forwarded to the appeals office and also seeks a submission from the Deciding Officer/Designated Person on the extent to which the facts advanced by the appellant are admitted or disputed.
At this point in the process, the Department reviews the original decision to decide whether it should be revised in favour of the appellant. In some cases, this may involve a further review of new evidence by a Medical Assessor or a Social Welfare Inspector. All this activity takes time, but it also affords the appellant many opportunities to strengthen their case along the way. In a significant number of cases it saves time as the appeal can be resolved without the need for it to be considered by an Appeals Officer. By way of example, 20.5% (5,200) of the 25,406 appeals finalised during 2015 were revised by the Deciding Officer/Designated Person in favour of the appellant during this stage of the process.
Where the decision is not revised by the Department, the file with the appeal submission is returned to the appeals office and added to the files awaiting assignment to an Appeals Officer. Given the volume of appeals and in order to be fair to all appellants, the assignment of appeals is generally dealt with in chronological order. The only exceptions to this are Supplementary Welfare Allowance (including Rent Supplement) appeals which are prioritised for attention as soon as the file and submission is received from the Department.
When a case is assigned to an Appeals Officer, he or she will examine the documentary evidence presented and consider if the appeal can be properly and fairly decided on a summary basis. Where an oral hearing of the case is required, it is estimated that the logistics involved can add another 6 weeks to the process as the hearing venue must be scheduled and the appellant is generally given 2-3 weeks’ advance notice. At any time during this process, up to and including the oral hearing of the appeal, an appellant can submit additional information, which affords them the opportunity to strengthen their case.
Oral hearings are convened in the appeals office headquarters buildings in D’Olier Street in Dublin and at a range of venues countrywide. An Appeals Officer will generally schedule a number of days appeal hearings together in the one location in order to make most effective use of time and resources and s/he may hear up to 6 appeals in a day. On completion of the hearing ‘run’ the Appeals Officer will consider the evidence presented and decide and record the appeal decisions. The appellant will be notified of the outcome of the appeal and the file will be returned to the Department for implementation of the decision.
The quasi-judicial nature of the appeals system means that there are inevitable time lags involved but every effort is made to keep these to a minimum and appeal processing times are kept under constant review. However, the system is flexible and fair and the time taken is proportionate to the complexity of many of the issues under appeal which require a high level of judgment and often involve conflicting evidence and/or complex legal questions.