I am advised by the Social Welfare Appeals Office that during 2007 the average time taken to process all appeals (i.e. those decided summarily and by way of oral hearing) was 22 weeks. However, if allowance was made for the 25% most protracted cases, the average time fell to just over 14 weeks. Processing times for 2008 are not yet available but are expected to be at least of the same order if not higher having regard to a 23% increase in appeals received so far this year.
The processing time for appeals covers all phases of the appeal process including the submission by the Department of its comments on the grounds for the appeal, further examination by the Department's Medical Assessors in certain illness related cases and further investigation by Social Welfare Inspectors where required. Circumstances may also arise, normally outside of the control of the Social Welfare Appeals Office, which have the effect of unduly prolonging the time taken to process appeals. For example, delays can occur where the appellant submits new information or evidence, often at an advanced stage in the proceedings. In some cases adjournments may be sought by the appellant or his/her representative.
Having said that, however, I am concerned about processing times for appeals being further increased and, having regard to the current level of appeals awaiting determination, arrangements have been made to appoint two additional Appeals Officers from next January to the Social Welfare Appeals Office. Furthermore, in the light of the current situation, I am advised that the Chief Appeals Officer is initiating a review of current processes with a view to achieving a more effective throughput of appeals having regard to due process in terms of the rights of appellants and adherence to the requirements of natural justice. While improving processing times remains a major objective of the Social Welfare Appeals Office, it is necessary at all times to ensure that progress in this regard is achieved in a manner which is not in conflict with the demands of justice and the requirement that every appeal be fully investigated and examined on all its merits.