A Breakdown of Benefit Sanctions and How to Deal with Them

We recently brought you a blog post about to benefit sanctions. In that article, we discussed the recent report which claims these can have a detrimental effect on people’s mental health. We also considered some of the strange and unusual reasons why people had had their benefits sanctioned.

However, we received a lot of emails and phone calls following that post from people wanting to know more about the benefit sanctions process. Many were confused about why benefit sanctions are put in place, and wondered what they could do to avoid being sanctioned.

This area law is a complex one, but we thought that this week’s blog post would be the perfect opportunity for us to provide you with a benefit sanction breakdown, and address some of the top questions we received in a straightforward, easy-to-understand way.

What is a benefit sanction?

If you’re a benefits claimant who receives Job Seeker’s Allowance, Universal Credit, Income Support or Employment and Support Allowance, you can be sanctioned. What this means is that your benefits can be stopped by the authorities at any time, although you will be given a reason why.

If you’re claiming any of the benefits listed, you’ll have signed a document called a claimant commitment, which sets out your responsibilities and the consequences of not adhering to them.

A benefit can be stopped (or sanctioned) from anywhere between 4 weeks and 156 weeks (3 years), and there are three levels to this: lower, intermediate and higher level. According to the latest government description, the level of your sanction and the length of time it is put in place depends on:

  • Your reason for claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance
  • What you’ve done (or haven’t done) to find work
  • Whether you’ve received another sanction in the last year, or your claim has been ended, and the reason(s) for this

Lower level sanctions last between 4 to 13 weeks, and reasons for these can include not going to appointments on time with your work coach, not attending recommended training courses, not taking part in employment schemes when your work coach instructs you to, losing your place on an employment scheme through misconduct and so on. Intermediate level sanctions, also lasting between 4 and 13 weeks, are applicable, for example, if you aren’t available for and actively seeking work.

Higher level sanctions can result in your benefits being stopped for 13 to 156 weeks, and can be put into place if:

  • you were dismissed from your last job due to misconduct
  • you left your last job without good reason
  • you don’t apply for suitable jobs your work coach suggests
  • you don’t take a job via your work coach or employment scheme when offered it

What happens if I don’t agree with the sanction reasoning?

There are a variety of reasons why you might wish to appeal against a sanction. It could be that you feel they’ve given you the wrong level of sanction, or that you’ve been sanctioned for a disproportionate amount of time. There’s also always a chance that the authorities have made a mistake, so if you’ve received notification that your benefits have been sanctioned, it’s important that you understand your rights.

It’s important that you get in touch with us as soon as possible, as this area of law can be difficult to understand, and having a qualified legal consultant will help you to navigate this minefield of rules and regulations. However, there are some basic steps you need to be aware of. Firstly, you’ll need to provide the proper authorities with the correct information about your circumstances, and inform them either why you didn’t do the things they are accusing you of, or where there has been an error.

It’s the Department of Work and Pensions who will decide whether your justification has merit, or whether there has been a mistake on their part. If they decide your reasoning isn’t good enough, they’ll decide how long to sanction you for.

If you feel there has been a wrong decision at this point, you can ask the authorities to consider your case again within one month of the decision. It’s vital that you seek legal guidance at this point, as you’ll be asked to give evidence and explain why the decision is wrong, so you’ll need direction on how to build a strong case for yourself.

Once the case has been reconsidered, you’ll be sent a letter confirming what has been decided and why, called a ‘Mandatory Reconsideration Notice’. If you still disagree with this, you can appeal to a tribunal.

How can I avoid being sanctioned?

In many cases, benefits are a lifeline for those who claim them, so it’s no surprise that many of the queries we received were about how people can avoid being sanctioned. Firstly, it’s important that you thoroughly read your claimant commitment or agreement documentation to understand what rules you must follow, but there are a few other things you can do:

  • Inform the Job Centre know as soon as possible if there’s anything in your agreement that you can’t do
  • Keep track of all the Job Centre appointments for reference
  • Keep a record of all your activities that relate to your benefit requirements, such as how many hours per week you spent looking for work and any jobs you apply for
  • Keep a copy of anything the Job Centre gives or sends you
  • Always ask your work coach to explain anything that’s unclear

What are the first steps I should take if I’ve been sanctioned?

No one likes receiving this news, but it’s important to stay calm and consider your next steps to resolve the situation as soon as possible. First of all, if you’re currently entitled to Housing Benefit and Council Tax reduction, you should still receive this following a sanction. However, the Job Centre will contact the council, who usually stop these benefits until you have confirmed your new income. So, always start by contacting the ‘Revenues and Benefits’ department of your local council to explain the situation, giving them proof of your new income (or no income) to restart your claim. If you fail to do this, you could end up with rent and Council Tax arrears.

Next, consider your living expenses. Work out how much money you have coming into the household with the sanction, and list all expenses beside this. If you don’t even have enough money for priorities such as bills and food, you could be eligible for a hardship payment – a reduced benefit available to sanctioned claimants. This usually pays out 60% of your benefit payment.

We hope you found this breakdown of benefit sanctions useful. If this has happened to you, and you’re concerned about where you stand, don’t forget that our experts are always here to help you. You can call us on 020 7381 8111, or email us at law@hylton-potts.com.

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