A council has launched an urgent review into cuts it made to people’s direct payments after a legal challenge forced a “complete U-turn” in one woman’s case.
Stockport council has also suspended its direct payments policy – introduced last year – after admitting it may have made wrong decisions on how people could spend their money.
The reversals came after a disabled woman’s family challenged the authority’s decision to cut her direct payment last year. The law firm representing the family, Irwin Mitchell, said the reduction was on the grounds that the woman – who is autistic and has learning disabilities – was no longer permitted to use it to visit relatives at the weekend.
‘Devastating impact’ of direct payment cut
The firm said this had a “devastating impact” on the woman’s quality of life, by removing the “lifeline” of having contact with her family at the weekend, an arrangement that had been in place since 2008.
Irwin Mitchell said that the council also told the family that they had used some payments incorrectly in the past and issued a final notice for repayment, which the family felt compelled to pay following the threat of court action.
However, the firm, on behalf of the family, then threatened the council with a judicial review of the decisions unless they reversed them.
Irwin Mitchell argued that the 2021 policy – on which the decisions were based – breached the eligibility regulations under the Care Act 2014 by imposing a “total ban” on using direct payments for leisure activities.
Among the outcomes listed in the eligibility regulations is “making use of necessary facilities or services in the local community including public transport, and recreational facilities or services”. A Stockport council webpage – last updated on 7 March 2022 – states that people may not use direct payments to “pay for leisure/luxury items for example cinema or concert tickets, football matches, beauty treatments and/or products”.
Following the legal challenge, the council reversed its decisions, reinstating the woman’s previous level of direct payments, said Irwin Mitchell. The firm added that it also agreed to refund the money the family paid after it was told it had wrongly used payments in the past.
“It was so distressing to be accused of misusing payments and the disruption to our daughter’s life left us with no choice but to seek legal advice,” said the woman’s parents.
“This complete U-turn by the council has vindicated us and while we’re pleased with the outcome, this should never have happened in the first place.”
The council has also suspended the direct payments policy, pending a review, which it intends to lead to the publication of a new policy by mid-August. It is also contacting anyone who had a decision on how they spend their payments lead to them being reduced or removed.
A spokesperson said: “Stockport Council is in the process of reviewing its previous direct payments policy having listened to concerns raised by residents.
‘We accept we may have not got decisions right’
“We accept that last year we may have made some decisions in relation to how direct payments can be spent that are not right. We are now reviewing those decisions as a matter of urgency to make sure we are fair, consistent and in line with the Care Act.
“As a result, we have decided to stop using the existing approach and policy to determine what people can and cannot spend their payments on until we have completed a further review and agreed on a new policy, which we will publish by mid-August 2022.
“We would like to apologise to anyone affected by this issue. We understand changes to support plans, and direct payments can be an anxious experience and we sincerely apologise for any worry we may have caused.”
Mathieu Culverhouse, partner at Irwin Mitchell, said: “The family’s determination to challenge the council’s decisions could now have far reaching implications, opening the door to others facing similar decisions in respect of direct payments.
“By refusing to reinstate her direct payment and continuing to apply the new direct payment policy, the council was failing to meet her assessed needs. With the new policy withdrawn, our client will once again have the lifeline of maintaining contact with her family at weekends.”