The family of a seriously mentally ill man who starved to death after months of isolation in his flat after his benefits were stopped are considering an appeal after losing a high court case against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Errol Graham, a 57-year-old grandfather, weighed just 28kg when he was found dead at home by bailiffs sent to evict him in June 2018, eight months after all his benefits were stopped because of his failure to attend a fit for work assessment.
An inquest in 2019 found that DWP and NHS staff had missed opportunities to save Graham, and the coroner concluded that “the safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it”.
Lawyers acting for his family brought a case last year to try to force changes to the DWP’s safeguarding process, arguing that he would still be alive if officials had checked properly on his health and wellbeing before withdrawing his benefits.
The family argued at a judicial review hearing in January that DWP guidance fell short because it failed to impose a duty of care on decision-makers to investigate when mentally ill claimants did not engage with the benefits system. The DWP’s policy placed an unfair burden on vulnerable claimants to prove that they had good cause when they did not attend meetings with DWP officials.
DWP officials made two visits to Graham’s home in 2017, and a handful of attempts to communicate with him by phone, but failed to make contact with him before cutting off his benefits, which were his sole source of income.
On Thursday a judge ruled that the DWP guidance was lawful and that officials had acted reasonably in Graham’s case. Mr Justice Bourne said neither the law nor DWP policy at the time “mandated any further specific steps to be taken in that situation”.
He added: “Despite the tragic circumstances of this case … the claimant falls well short of establishing that the defendant failed to comply with” its duty to make reasonable inquiries into all relevant matters.
The family’s lawyer, Tessa Gregory, of the solicitors Leigh Day, said: “We are deeply disappointed by the judgment, which fails to ensure the DWP takes simple steps to protect the lives of vulnerable benefit claimants. We are considering an appeal and Errol’s family will continue to fight for a welfare system that supports rather than endangers lives.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our sincere condolences remain with Mr Graham’s family. While we welcome this judgment we continue to work to improve the service that we provide to our most vulnerable claimants.”
After Graham’s family lodged the claim last July, DWP revised its safeguarding policy, introducing guidance last October requiring staff to widen the scope of inquiries to ensure they checked with police, NHS staff or next of kin before stopping benefits.
Mr Justice Bourne said this revision was “in my view a significant improvement to the policy. It should help to prevent tragic outcomes like that of Mr Graham, though I cannot say what if any effect it would have had in his case.”