The workload of the appeals office has increased dramatically in recent years. Up to 2009 the average number of appeals received was 15,000 per annum, whereas in 2012 the number of appeals received peaked at 35,484, reducing to 32,777 appeals in 2013. This has placed considerable pressure on the office.
Significant effort and resources have been devoted to reforming the appeals process to manage this increased workload, reduce backlogs and improve appeals processing times for appellants, while, at the same time, recognising the need to ensure that quality and fairness are not compromised. An additional 15 Appeals Officers have been assigned to the office over the past three years, in addition to 10 former Community Welfare Service Appeals Officers who joined the appeals office in 2011, bringing the total number to 41. In addition, a new operating model has been introduced in the appeals office. A major programme of process redesign and modernisation is also under way in the Department in relation to many of its scheme areas, aimed at reducing backlogs and reducing the time taken by the Department to respond to requests from the appeals office for submissions in relation to appeals.
These measures have achieved significant improvements. The number of appeals cases processed in 2013 increased by 18%, to over 38,400. The average processing time for appeals peaked in 2011 when the average time for an oral hearing was 52.5 weeks and for a summary decision was 25.1 weeks. In 2012 the average time for an oral hearing dropped to 39.5 weeks and the time for a summary decision increased slightly to 27.8 weeks. This overall improvement has continued in 2013 with the processing time reducing to 33.9 weeks for an oral hearing and 25.8 weeks for a summary decision.
In addition to the improvements in processing times mentioned above, these measures have also led to a significant increase in the number of appeals finalised in the appeals office from 17,787 in 2009 to 38,421 in 2013. An additional 5,863 appeals were finalised in 2013 compared to 2012. Good progress also continues to be made in reducing the number of appeals on hands from 20,414 at 1 January 2013 to 13,993 at 31 March 2014.
Appeal processing times are calculated from the registration date of the appeal to the date of its finalisation. They include all activities during this period including time spent awaiting any clarification from the appellant, time in the Department for comments by the Deciding Officer on the grounds of appeal put forward by the appellant, and any further investigation, examination or assessment by the Department's Inspectors and Medical Assessors that is deemed necessary. A considerable period of time is added to the process when an oral hearing is required because of the logistics involved in this process. While I accept that this process carries an inherent delay in terms of finalising an appeal, it also crystalises the flexibility and accessibility of the appeals system.
By its nature and because it is a quasi-judicial function, the processing of appeals takes time and reflects the fact that, by definition, the appeal process cannot be a quick one. However, where an appellant's means are insufficient to meet their needs pending the determination of their appeal, it is open to them to apply for a means-tested Supplementary Allowance payment. The Social Welfare Appeals Office functions independently of the Minister for Social Protection and of the Department and is responsible for determining appeals against decisions in relation to social welfare entitlements.