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Secretary of State for Work and Pensions v Hinchy [2005] UKHL 16

DATE: 03 Mar 2005

The House of Lords confirms the Secretary of State's right to recover overpaid social security benefits.

The House of Lords has given an important judgment in respect of the Secretary of State's right to recover overpaid social security benefit from claimants on grounds of material non-disclosure. It confirms the primary responsibility of social security claimants to inform their local office as to changes in their circumstances including changes in their entitlement to other social security benefits.

By a majority decision, the House of Lords reversed the Court of Appeal's decision that a claimant had not failed to disclose the cessation of her entitlement to a social security benefit (disability living allowance) which affected her level of entitlement to another (income support) because the Secretary of State knew or should be taken to have known of changes to benefit entitlement.

The thrust of the reasoning of the House of Lords was encapsulated in Lord Hoffman's speech in the following terms:

(paragraph 32) "..The claimant is not concerned or entitled to make any assumptions about the internal administrative arrangements of the department. In particular, she is not entitled to assume the existence of infallible channels of communication between one office and another. Her duty is to comply with what the Tribunal called the “simple instruction” in the order book. It seems to me, however, that this proposition of Carnwath LJ completely undermines the reasoning of Aldous LJ, based upon what Miss Hinchy was entitled to assume about what would amount to “maladministration”, with which Carnwath LJ said he agreed. For my part, I would approve the principles stated by the Commissioners in R(SB) 15/87 and CG/4494/99. The duty of the claimant is the duty imposed by regulation 32 or implied by section 71 to make disclosure to the person or office identified to the claimant as the decision maker. The latter is not deemed to know anything which he did not actually know."

The decision has far reaching implications for the recovery of overpayments of social security benefits generally.

Richard Drabble QC and Daniel Kolinsky appeared for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions who succeeded in his appeal.