Errol Graham’s body was found by bailiffs in 2018 (Image: Errol Graham)
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The government breached equality law by stopping a vulnerable man’s benefits and leaving him to starve to death, the High Court heard today.
Errol Graham weighed less than five stone when bailiffs found his body in June 2018 – eight months after his disabled benefit was cut off for missing an appointment.
A benefits assessment in 2013 found he had suicidal thoughts, a history of self-harm and “hallucinations which instruct him to jump out of the window”. He later "cut himself off from the world".
Yet in 2017 welfare officials cut off his Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) after “several” failed bids to contact him.
The 57-year-old from Nottingham, who had severe mental health difficulties, had a single light bulb, no gas or electricity, and a couple of five-year-old tins of fish in his cupboard.
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Today his son’s fiancee Alison Turner began a test case at the High Court claiming the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) acted unlawfully.
Her lawyers said if she wins the judicial review, it would impact many other people who are “unable, because of mental disabilities, to engage with or respond to the DWP”.
Kicking off a two-day hearing, her barrister Adam Straw argued the decision to end Mr Graham’s benefits breached a legal duty under the 2010 Equality Act. That puts a duty on public authorities to have “due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination.”
The family’s lawyers argued there was a wider “error in law”, because the DWP puts the “onus” on mentally ill people to prove they had good reason not to respond to the authorities.
The lawyers argued the DWP should “make all reasonable inquiries” before cutting off a vulnerable person’s benefits, because otherwise they would be “at serious risk of harm or death”.
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Mr Straw told the court many more claimants could be affected by the “unlawful” behaviour.
He said there was ”a well-recognised cohort of ESA claimants who are unable, because of mental disabilities, to engage with, or respond to the DWP”.
"Withdrawing benefits for a vulnerable claimant like Mr Graham will often put that individual at risk of serious harm,” he said.
He added: "It is a momentous decision which will often entail a sudden and complete loss of income – leaving the person destitute without food and housing."
But the DWP is fighting the case – saying a new policy it introduced last September is “entirely lawful”.
Other parts of the family’s case were dropped after the DWP agreed to run a safeguarding review and hand the family an Internal Process Review into Mr Graham’s death.
Clive Sheldon QC, for the government, said Mr Graham’s death was “tragic” but the DWP “did all that was legally required”.
He dismissed claims the burden was being placed unfairly on mentally ill claimants to prove they couldn’t respond.
“Information as to why a claimant has not attended a work assessment will ordinarily and generally be in the knowledge of the claimant,” he said.
“By definition it seems obvious that the claimant will have the burden of proof.
“That does not mean the Department does not take steps to elicit appropriate information and we say it does so here.”
He added: “Where a mental health flag is raised, as was the case with Mr Graham, there are safeguarding visits carried out.”
He also rejected claims there had been a breach of the Equality Act, saying: “There was no requirement for the Secretary of State to have done more or to seek out any further information.”
The DWP’s barrister went on: “What was done was lawful and entirely reasonable in the circumstances.”
The case continues tomorrow. A judgement is expected at a later date.