Members of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have heavily criticised the use of courthouses for benefit appeal tribunals, with some going further and roundly condemning the manner in which appeals are held.

One councillor recounted an experience in which he accompanied a disabled woman to a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) appeal describing her treatment as, “more than disgraceful”.

The matter was brought to the council’s monthly meeting by Councillor Barry McElduff (SF) who wants the NI Local Government Association (NILGA) to spearhead a campaign calling for an end to the use of courthouses for appeals, which he says “criminalises” those fighting to keep their benefits.

Referring to a response on the matter from the Department of Justice, Councillor McElduff flatly rejected an assertion the usage of courthouses for benefit appeals is independent and dignified. “There is no way an appellant being dragged to a courthouse could consider that a dignified setting for an appeal,” he said.

Noting both previous Ministers for Justice, David Ford and latterly, Claire Sugden supported the initiative, Councillor McElduff said appellants already felt criminalised by the venue and dismissed the Department of Justice referring to other types of non-criminal hearings in courthouses such as civil and family proceedings.

He suggested NILGA should consider initiating a joint action of strong opposition against courthouse appeal hearings and urged all other councils to come onboard.

Councillor Bernice Swift (Independent) blasted, “the whole set-up of welfare reform” and said the process should be scrutinised.

“I don’t care if it’s a courthouse, a henhouse or an outhouse, these heinous appeals shouldn’t be happening. I agree a courthouse isn’t an appropriate setting and this council should remain fixed in opposing cuts to those most vulnerable in our society.”

Councillor Josephine Deehan (Independent) noted a distinct lack of understanding on the part of the those involved hearing appeals.

“There is very considerable stress caused to people going forward for appeals. It is a very stressful experience. For anyone to refer to a dignified experience is an assertion which rings hollow.”

Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh (Independent) described the process of hearing appeals at courthouses as, “Part and parcel of the criminalisation of vulnerable people. It was within the outgoing executive policy.

“The executive parties ganged up to allow the Tories to bring in their policy, betraying working class and vulnerable people.”

Councillor John McCluskey (Independent) felt the entire appeals process should be examined and expressed concern at the handling of vulnerable appellants appearing to fight for their benefits. “I attended an appeal and the manner in which the appellant was treated was more than disgraceful. The woman was vulnerable and had medical evidence (supporting her claim) but the questioning by a panel member was, and I repeat, more than disgraceful.”

Calling on the scope of representations to be broadened, Councillor McCluskey said,

“Wherever the appeal is held, it’s the manner in which people are treated. I’d go further than calling for no courthouse usage. There should be an investigation into how these tribunals are held.”

A note of caution was sounded by Councillor Howard Thornton (UUP) who, while supportive of ending the current practice, warned: “We need to be careful when taking functions away from courthouses. Enniskillen has been downgraded to a Hearing Centre and Omagh may face the same. Other forces may use cuts in usage to their advantage”

Rounding off the debate, Councillor Stephen McCann (SF) told members: “Welfare Reform was imposed on us by the Government … We were penalised for maintaining a position against it.

“We negotiated £584 million to mitigate against it. Welfare Reform is down to the British Government.”