The family of Philippa Day, a mentally ill single mother who died from a deliberate overdose after her benefits were wrongly cut off, is to seek compensation from the government.
Day died in 2019 after months of struggle with the benefit system left her in debt, highly anxious and haunted by suicidal thoughts. An inquest concluded her experience with the system was a “stressor” in her decision to take the overdose.
Her family claims the handling of the case by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Capita, the private firm to carries out some benefits assessments, was negligent and breached Day’s human rights.
DWP and Capita have three months to respond and if a settlement cannot be reached, the family is expected to sue for compensation in the high court.
Imogen Day, Philippa’s sister, said the benefits system had made her sister feel “inhuman” and powerless during the last few months of her life. “It was like watching a car crash in slow motion … we helped her emotionally, financially and practically and we could see the tragedy in front of us but couldn’t do anything more to stop it.”
The inquest into Day’s death held in January found 28 instances where “systemic errors” had led to failures by benefits officials. The coroner has issued the DWP with a rare prevention of future deaths notice, formally requiring it to improve the way staff engage with mentally ill claimants.
The DWP faces two other court challenges over its handling of the benefit system. The family of Errol Graham, 57, who was found starved to death in 2018 after his benefits were withdrawn, is to appeal after a court turned down their attempt to force changes to the benefits safeguarding system.
The family of Jodey Whiting, 42, who took her own life in 2017 after her benefits were stopped, will ask the high court for a second inquest into her death. The family won permission to go to court after an independent inquiry found several failings in the DWP’s handling of the case.
Capita is not involved in either the Graham or the Whiting case.
The three cases are likely to trigger fresh scrutiny of the way the benefits system handles claims by vulnerable people. Campaigners have renewed calls for an independent inquiry into the benefits-related deaths of at least 150 people.
According to a National Audit Office (NAO) report published last year, internal DWP documents showed at least 69 suicides were related to the department’s handling of benefit claims. The NAO said the true figure was likely to be much higher.
According to the BBC, the DWP has carried out 84 “internal process reviews” into benefits-related deaths since 2015, with a further six due shortly. About 60 internal inquiries were completed under the previous system between 2012 and 2014.
The Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, a veteran campaigner on disability rights, said: “There needs to be an independent inquiry investigating why these deaths are happening and the scale of the deaths needs to be properly understood.”
The DWP last year vowed to overhaul the way it deals with vulnerable claimants after admitting vulnerable people had sometimes “fallen through the cracks” in the social security system. It said it would issue new guidance requiring frontline staff to support vulnerable claimants rather than removing their benefits and abandoning them.
Tessa Gregory, a partner at Leigh Day solicitors, which represented the families of Day and Graham, said: “When DWP decision-making goes wrong it can, as we have seen in far too many cases, have devastating and sometimes fatal consequences … the case for reform is clear.”