An increasing share of people who take the Government to court over a decision to deny them disability benefits are winning their appeals.
Nearly three quarters of people (72%) were successful at tribunals serving Manchester and the North West from 2018 to 2021, up from three in five (58%) between 2015 and 2018.
Most hearings centred on Personal Independence Payment (PIP), the main disability benefit.
Will Johnstone, of the charity Rethink Mental Illness, accused the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of “desperately failing the people it is supposed to support”.
The department said the PIP assessment process was “carried out by experienced health professionals” and the vast majority of cases were not appealed.
People in Manchester and the North West who are denied disability benefits can challenge the decision through a written process called a mandatory reconsideration.
If this is unsuccessful, they can ask for the case to be heard at the Liverpool Social Security and Child Support Tribunal.
There were 10,153 tribunals at this centre in 2020-21, with appellants winning 7,506 cases (74%), the DWP winning 2,589 (25%) and others being withdrawn, according to analysis by the BBC’s Shared Data Unit.
Citizens' Advice Manchester suggested the figures would be even higher if it were not for the lengthy appeals process, which wears many claimants down and causes them to drop out.
Benefits caseworker Lindsay Fletcher said: "We had a successful case this week but he had been waiting 18 months since the initial decision. He's now going to get backdated payments of around £12,000 but the case had been adjourned so many times.
"He didn't come to us for support until about 12 months in.
"The tribunal can adjourn cases for many reasons, including thinking the claimant needs more support and missing paperwork.
"We often have to encourage claimants not to give up.”
Ms Fletcher said she would also like to see changes to the medical assessments, saying this was often a reason disability benefits cases have to go to appeal.
She said: "Medicals are just a snapshot and they can be done by people with no specific experience of problems. You could have a podiatrist talking to someone with severe bipolar disorder.
"It would be better if they used specialists to assess these problems.
"Medicals are also now done on the phone and some people really struggle to convey the impact of their condition when it's not face-to-face.
"That's why a lot of decisions are overturned, because it's only when we get involved that people get the full picture."
Ms Fletcher said Citizens' Advice Manchester has had examples of clients walking into the tribunal room and the judge saying that was enough to recognise they should receive their benefits.
"That shouldn't happen," she said.
Mr Johnstone said: “The mandatory reconsideration process often causes significant distress to people who want to challenge benefit decisions, with the Department for Work and Pensions seeking to discourage appeals which they often go on to lose.
“Yet despite their poor track record and the negative impact on people’s wellbeing, the DWP persists in forcing people to take cases to court to get the correct decision.”
A spokesperson for the DWP said: “We support millions of people a year and our priority is they get the support they are entitled to as quickly as possible.
“The vast majority of PIP cases are not appealed and we continue to improve the service offered to customers, including through recent changes to our decision-making process.
“The PIP assessment process is carried out by experienced health professionals and considers how people are affected by their disability, rather than just the disability itself, and more than double the proportion of PIP claimants get the top rates of support compared to those who receive Disability Living Allowance.”
How does the appeal process work?
Initial benefits assessments are carried out on behalf of the DWP by the private contractors Capita, the Independent Assessment Services (formerly called Atos) and Maximus.
The DWP maintains its disability assessors are all experienced health professionals and their work is subject to ongoing quality monitoring.
Since 2013, people seeking to overturn a benefits decision must complete a written challenge within a month, known as a mandatory reconsideration.
If unsuccessful, people can take their appeal to a tribunal.
The DWP said mandatory reconsiderations were introduced to ensure claimants received the right decision without having to go to court.
What happened during the pandemic?
The number of benefits appeals being heard at tribunal fell year on year during the coronavirus pandemic.
The DWP said it had made recent changes including giving decision makers more time to contact people to ask for further information to support their benefit claim at both the first decision and the mandatory reconsideration stage.