What we do

The current system of benefit sanctions has been shown to have a profoundly negative impact on the health, finances and wellbeing of those affected. PLP is particularly concerned with the lawfulness of the benefit sanctioning regime and how it affects marginalised people, especially those with disabilities.

The aims of our benefit sanctions work are to ensure that:

  • Benefit claimants have access to effective legal remedies when poor decisions are made
  • We can identify and tackle systemic problems with the sanctioning system where they result in people being sanctioned unfairly and unlawfully
  • Decision-makers, advisers, charities and individual claimants all know how claimant commitments can be tailored to individual circumstances, and that doing so can reduce the likelihood of sanctioning

The claimant commitment is a record of the responsibilities (or ‘work-related requirements’) that claimants accept in return for receiving Universal Credit.

Take a look at our www.claimaintcommitments.org.uk for information on tailoring claimant commitments to individual circumstances

PLP identified that a solution to one of the causes of unfair sanctions was to ensure that claimants are aware that they can negotiate the terms of the claimant commitment which they must satisfy in order to receive their benefits.

With funding from the Matrix Causes Fund, PLP produced a microsite www.claimaintcommitments.org.uk  and a series of leaflets for claimants and advisers to show how claimant commitments can be tailored to individual needs, making it easier to comply with conditions and avoid sanctions, and how to get unreasonable commitments amended.

The leaflets are targeted at the vulnerable groups most likely to be sanctioned including people experiencing domestic abuse, those with mental health conditions, lone parents, care leavers, homeless people, and refugees.

The leaflets are printer and mobile friendly so that claimants can take the information with them to meet with their work-coaches.

How we do it


PLP supports people experiencing problems with sanctions, conditionality, welfare payments, and tax credits by helping and advising them through process of judicial review.

The PLP casework team can assist with cases relating to:

  • Unreasonable requirements imposed in a claimant commitment or failure to tailor the claimant commitment
  • Conditionality pending a work capability assessment, mandatory reconsideration or appeal
  • Continued application of sanctions after change of conditionality group
  • Cases where claimants have multiple deductions, particularly where these eat into housing costs
  • Cases where claimants are left destitute/homeless after deductions, including sanctions, particularly if there is a delay in responding to an MR or appeal
  • Cases where claimants are not advised of available easements, including domestic violence
  • Accessibility issues such as inaccessible DWP premises, the digital claims process and online journal
  • Cases where claimants cannot access hardship payments

We have a public law legal aid contract which means we can provide advice and representation for judicial review proceedings which may be the appropriate remedy in the cases identified above. We regret we are not able to offer assistance directly to individuals unless you are referred to us by another agency. We are a small organisation with limited capacity and cannot guarantee that we will be able to help in all cases. We regret we are currently unable to assist with casework for mandatory reconsideration or appeals.

For further information please see our legal aid page or take a look at our ECF for welfare benefits guide.

To make a referral, please email sanctions@publiclawproject.org.uk

Sanctioning and mental health

PLP was referred a case of a man with a serious mental health condition who had been unfairly sanctioned for failing to comply with the conditions of his claim. He had been left destitute as a result of the sanctions, and was unable to heat his home or buy food. We were referred the case in the week before Christmas, and were told by the referrer that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had said it would be impossible to arrange an appointment for hardship payment until after Christmas. Due to the seriousness and urgency of his case, we took it on with a view to issuing urgent judicial review proceedings. In the event, it was unnecessary to issue proceedings, as following our intervention the DWP reversed the sanction decisions, and paid the client his arrears before the Christmas holidays began.

Mental health and reasonable adjustments

PLP also represented a client in a claim for discrimination against the DWP and a work programme provider. The client, who was in receipt of the Employment Support Allowance, was referred into the work programme by the DWP. The DWP’s policy is that it does not share information about claimants’ disabilities with providers, so the provider was unaware of the extent of the client’s mental health conditions. As a result, the client had to explain herself that her mental health condition meant that she would struggle to carry out some of the activities. Despite her explaining repeatedly, the provider refused to make reasonable adjustments. The client’s mental health deteriorated as a result of the activity she was required to undertake by the work programme provider, and she eventually disengaged from the programme and was sanctioned as a result. She was referred to us for advice on judicial review. Shortly afterwards, the DWP agreed to overturn the sanctions. We then issued proceedings, with funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, arguing that the policy which prevented the DWP from sharing information about medical conditions discriminated against claimants with mental health conditions. The case settled before trial, and the client received financial compensation from the DWP and the work programme provider. The client told us that bringing the claim “would have been worth it even if there hadn’t been any compensation, just to have a voice and to be able to argue back”.

Universal Credit and Article 6 rights

PLP represented a victim of domestic violence who had been refused Universal Credit which she had claimed in order to fund her stay in a women’s refuge with an infant son having left an abusive husband. She was not able to work regularly due to her childcare responsibilities.

The effect of the DWP’s decision to refuse her claim, and the subsequent delay in turning around a mandatory reconsideration, was that our client was without any regular income apart from Child Benefit and as a result accrued significant rent arrears at the refuge. By the time PLP became involved in her case, the refuge was warning her of possible eviction to due to non-payment of rent, as well as a possible referral to social services. Our client was at this point relying on food banks for additional help.

The DWP’s decision to refuse Universal Credit was overturned following a judicial review pre-action protocol letter from PLP challenging the lawfulness of the refusal and unreasonable delay of the mandatory reconsideration, which PLP argued was a breach of our client’s Article 6 rights.

Our client was awarded £12,451.70 in backdated Universal Credit and Housing Benefit, allowing her to cover the rent at the women’s refuge.

Training and resources

PLP delivers training throughout England and Wales on issues including accessing hardship payments, ensuring that conditionality agreements are appropriate, and identifying where and how public law remedies can be used to challenge inappropriate sanctions.

PLP is able to offer bespoke training programmes help frontline charities and advisers to identify and challenge unfair sanctions as they arise.

Please get in touch to find out how our training could support your organisation by emailing sanctions@publiclawproject.org.uk

“The conference provided me with excellent practical information which has helped me to better support the individuals who I advocate for in dealing with severe challenges in the welfare system, especially those individuals facing mental health difficulties – including First Tier Tribunals for Welfare benefits, and in my work supporting other caseworkers.”

“The training provided the tools, wherewithal and confidence to build on that previous experience regarding casework tactics and strategies to improve the quality of our advice and advocacy for our clients.”

“It has given me the confidence to really push and dig my heels in when appealing or contesting decisions with service users.”

“Since the training I have attended two tribunals both of which the service users won with maximum points awarded. One of the service users had received zero points in the original decision we challenged.”

Research and policy

Our researchers and caseworkers work closely together to identify systemic problems with the benefits sanctioning regime and how we can best respond to them. Our research and training support a wide network of charities, academics and research bodies, and helps to inform decision-makers and parliamentarians.

Drawing on our conference in early 2020 – Benefit Sanctions: What’s next? – the Public Law Project and the University of York published a short-form strategy for civil society organisations working to improve the system.  

  • PLP’s work on the landmark legal challenge to the personal independence payments (PIPs) scheme featured in research carried out by Professor Lisa Vanhala and Dr Jacqui Kinghan of UCL. ‘Using the law to address unfair systems’ identifies strategic lessons for third sector organisations that use public law to challenge unfair systems.
  • Read PLPs written evidence to the Work and Pension’s Committee inquiries on Benefit Sanctions and Employment Support Allowance.
  • Read PLP’s letter to the Department for Work and Pensions to raise concerns over unfair practices in linking appeal refusals to DWP employees’ performance targets.

Take a look at the resources from our 2020 Benefit Sanctions Conference.

Get in touch with a member of our research team at research@publiclawproject.org.uk