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. All claim decisions taken by the Department’s Deciding Officers and Designated Persons are appealable to the Chief Appeals Officer. In any year about 85% of all claims are awarded by the Department and just 1% are appealed. Nevertheless, the Department endeavours to ensure that these cases are dealt with as quickly as possible. The time taken to process an appeal reflects a number of factors including that the appeals process is a quasi-judicial process with Appeals Officers being required to decide all appeals on a ‘de-novo’ basis. In addition, appeals decisions are themselves subject to review by the High Court and decisions have to be formally written up to quasi-judicial standards. Significant efforts and resources have been devoted to reforming the appeal process in recent years. As a result, average appeal processing times have generally improved between 2018 and 2020 from 30.0 weeks for an oral hearing in 2018 to 27.1 weeks in 2020, and from 24.8 weeks for a summary decision in 2018 to 15.5 weeks in 2020.
Currently, the number of Appeals Officers (full-time equivalent) is 40 which is similar to the position over the last two years. A number of new Appeals Officers have joined the Appeals Office over the past 12-18 months to replace staff leaving on retirement. Given the complexity of the appeals process it can take some time for new staff to be trained up and develop expertise. The desire to process appeals quickly has to be balanced with the competing demand to ensure that decisions are consistent and of high quality and made in accordance with the legislative provisions and the general principles of fair procedures and natural justice. Nevertheless, the latest data for the period January to end of October 2021 shows a further improvement with an average of 25.6 weeks for an oral hearing and 13.8 weeks for a summary decision. Further improvements in appeals processing times is a priority for the Chief Appeals Officer. Where a claimant has been refused a social welfare payment, regardless of the scheme involved, and is appealing that decision, if their means are insufficient to meet their needs it is open to them to apply for supplementary welfare allowance in the interim. If their application for supplementary welfare allowance is refused, they can also appeal that decision. The supplementary welfare allowance appeal will be prioritised for attention within the Appeals Office as soon as the appeal file and submission is received from the Department. I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.