The mother of a housebound disabled woman who killed herself after her benefits were cut is asking Court of Appeal judges to grant a fresh inquest into her daughter’s death.
Jodey Whiting, 42, from Stockton-on-Tees, died in February 2017 around two weeks after her disability benefit was stopped when she did not attend a work capability assessment.
Her mother, Joy Dove, is challenging a ruling given in June last year by two High Court judges, who refused to order a new inquest to investigate the role of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in Ms Whiting’s death.
The coroner at the original inquest, which lasted 37 minutes, recorded a verdict of suicide.
At a hearing in London on Tuesday, Ms Dove’s lawyers said the first inquest did not investigate ‘whether any acts or omissions of the DWP caused or contributed to Ms Whiting’s death’ and argued the High Court judges reached the wrong conclusions.
They argued another inquest was necessary to consider fresh evidence of ‘multiple, significant failings’ by the DWP when it terminated Ms Whiting’s Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which was not before the coroner at the time of the first inquest.
Jeremy Hyam KC, representing Ms Dove, said Ms Whiting was a ‘much-loved daughter, mother and grandmother’.
He said the written evidence includes a report by an independent case examiner which was ‘highly critical of the DWP’s conduct’ and identified ‘multiple significant breaches of DWP policy and missed opportunities to consider Ms Whiting’s claim appropriately in the period leading up to her death’.
A consultant psychiatrist also concluded that Ms Whiting ‘would be likely to have suffered a substantial depressive impact, with activation of suicidal ideas’ and found there was likely to have been a ‘causal link’ between the DWP failings and ‘Jodey’s state of mind immediately before her death’, the barrister added.
Mr Hyam said: ‘The (High Court) described the DWP’s errors, as reported by the independent case examiner, as “shocking”.
‘The inquest into Ms Whiting’s death did not – because it was not available – consider this evidence at all.’
He added: ‘The causal connection between the DWP’s “shocking” failures, the likely substantial depressive impact of those failures on Ms Whiting, the likely activation of her suicidal ideation by reason of such failures in the period immediately before her death, and the death of Ms Whiting, has never been investigated at all.
‘(The psychiatric) evidence, if accepted at a fresh inquest, shows a clear causal connection between the DWP failures, a subsequent depressive impact and the likely activation of her suicidal ideation in the period immediately before she took her own life.’
At the outset of the hearing, Lord Justice Lewis, hearing the case with Lord Justice William Davis and Lady Justice Whipple, addressed Ms Dove directly, saying: ‘Let us give our condolences.
‘It must be awful coming back to this year after year. We will never be able to put ourselves in your position Ms Dove.
‘But we do sympathise and understand why you are doing this case.’
Jonathan Hough KC, representing the assistant coroner for Teesside and Hartlepool, Jo Wharton, said she wanted him to express her view to the court that this is a ‘tragic case and that Jodey’s family have suffered a terrible and irreparable loss’.
He said her stance in the case was ‘not adversarial’ and that she had no intention of defending ‘any of the clearly serious and admitted failings’ of the DWP.
In written arguments, he said Ms Wharton considered it was for her to conduct the inquest into Ms Whiting’s death, that she called full evidence of the circumstances and cause of death, and she reached a short-form determination of suicide which is agreed to be correct.
He added: ‘She received, accepted and summed up the evidence that the DWP benefits decision had contributed to Ms Whiting’s desperate mental state.
‘The independent case examiner has now performed its important role of reviewing the DWP benefits decision and identifying the serious failings.
‘In all the circumstances, the coroner was not persuaded to support the application for a second inquest, but she has always made clear that she will defer to the judgment of the court.’
Lawyers representing the DWP argue the High Court reached the correct conclusion and that Ms Dove’s appeal should be dismissed.
Jonathan Dixey, for the department, said that in order to succeed, Ms Dove would have to establish that there was a legal duty on the DWP to ‘take steps to avert a real and immediate risk of a benefit claimant committing suicide’.
He added: ‘The DWP did not exercise any or any sufficient control over Ms Whiting. Moreover, the DWP is not resourced or endowed with powers to control those who claim or receive benefits payments.’
In a statement ahead of the appeal hearing, Ms Dove said: ‘I have always been convinced that the original inquest into Jodey’s death just did not sufficiently answer the questions about how Jodey came by her death and I have always been convinced that the DWP decision to cancel her benefits was a key factor in Jodey’s decision to end her own life.
‘The DWP’s actions and lack of action has now been described as shocking, yet the impact on Jodey and my belief that this caused her death has never been investigated and I want a second inquest to do that.
‘I was devastated by the High Court’s decision and I am grateful that there will be a Court of Appeal hearing.
‘I am looking forward to the hearing and trust the judges to make the just and right decision when they have heard the arguments from my legal team.’
Her solicitor, Merry Varney, of law firm Leigh Day, said: ‘Joy is asking the Court of Appeal to overturn the decision of the High Court refusing her permission for a second inquest into the death of her daughter Jodey, a much-loved mother and sister.
‘It is beyond doubt that the DWP acted woefully in their administration of and ultimately cancellation of Jodey’s benefits, and we hope the Court of Appeal will agree it is necessary in the interests of justice for there to be a second inquest into Jodey’s death.’
Ms Whiting had received benefits for more than a decade due to serious, long-term physical and mental health issues, including severe pain and a history of self-harm.
In late 2016, the DWP started to reassess Ms Whiting, who said she needed a house visit as she was housebound, had severe anxiety and was unable to walk more than a few steps.
Ms Dove’s lawyers argued at the High Court in 2021 that a house visit was not properly considered before the DWP terminated her disability benefit, which led to Ms Whiting’s housing benefit and council tax benefit also being terminated.
The decision to terminate Ms Whiting’s benefit was overturned on March 31, weeks after her death.
The independent case examiner, which investigates complaints about the DWP, later found multiple breaches of department policy, significant errors by staff and several ‘missed opportunities’ for the DWP to reconsider the claim.
The appeal hearing is due to conclude on Wednesday and a decision is expected at a later date.
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