The Department of Social Development described the steps the Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals had taken to reduce a huge backlog of outstanding appeals, with the ultimate objective of handling current appeals within a maximum of 90 days. It was expected that the backlog would be wiped out within 18 months.
The role of the Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals was to hear social assistance appeals against the decisions of the South African Social Security Agency, which received nearly 4.7 million applications for grants in the 12 months up to 31 March this year. Of these, about 290 000 had been rejected, leading to some 65 000 appeals. More than half these appeals originated in KwaZulu-Natal, which was ascribed in part to lawyers taking advantage of the situation, as well as past decisions, based more on compassionate than legal grounds, creating bad precedents. The current economic situation had also driven desperate people, usually unemployed or chronically ill, to seek disability grants for which they were not qualified.
The Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals' operational plan called for the creation of a provincial “footprint”, with the initial appointment of six provincial co-ordinators. Closer links would be forged with the South African Social Security Agency to improve communication with all stakeholders, allowing for an improved outreach to rural communities. Community newspapers, local radio and traditional leaders would also be used to communicate information about the role of the Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals.
An area affecting the Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals' response time to appeals and litigious appeal matters was the lack of an operational business information system, including telephone lines and computerisation, and this challenge was being addressed.
Members asked what was being done to assist those who were in need, but did not qualify for a grant, to achieve self-sustainability. why support workers from the the Expanded Public Works Programme had been recruited only in the Gauteng area, and not from the other provinces as well, referred to the high rejection rate for disability grants, compared to other types of grants, and asked what the reason for this was, and also wanted to know why there were so many appeals in KwaZulu-Natal. Members also asked whether the Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals had any other proposals for communicating with communities beyond using free-issue newspapers, expressed concern that the provincial offices would be located mainly in urban areas, making it difficult for the Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals to reach rural communities, and asked if statistics were available to identify how many women were represented in the appeals cases dealt with by the Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals.
Ms Virginia Petersen, Deputy Director General: Appeals, Department of Social Development (DSD), said the purpose of the briefing was to provide the Committee with an overview of the Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals (ITSAA)’s business and operational plans to manage new social assistance appeals, as well as the backlog of outstanding appeals. The briefing also included a report on its progress since the beginning of April this year.
She said the social assistance appeals function formed part of the constitutional obligation to provide access to social security, allowing decisions of the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) to be challenged. The Appeals Tribunal gave effect to the Medium Term Strategic Framework (MTSF) Programme of Action (POA) and the Department of Social Development’s Strategic Plan by promoting access to social security and services to vulnerable groups, the disabled, children and older people.
Ms Petersen said ITSAA had inherited a huge backlog situation, with files stored in boxes at City Deep. In order to bring order to the situation, 40 young people had been recruited from the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). The files were now stored at the Human Sciences Research Council building at Groenkloof, but there was a need for the paperwork to be replaced with electronic record keeping.
The focus of adjudication operations was to consider and communicate appeals decisions within 90 days, thereby ensuring that new appeals did not graduate into a backlog situation, and preventing both new and backlog appeals from developing into litigation.
Faced with financial constraints, an approach had been made to Treasury, and funds were allocated on the basis of a backlog of 40 000 appeals, with new appeals forecast at 15 000 per annum. This represented an overall target of 55 000
In the 12 months up to 31 March 2010, SASSA had received 4 680 675 applications for grants, of which 289 717 (6.64%) were rejected. Among the rejections, 246 864 (85.2%) were for disability grants, while 20 183 (6.96%) were for old age grants. These rejections had resulted in 65 144 appeals, with by far the largest number coming from KwaZulu Natal (KZN), with 35 467. The Eastern Cape was second, with 11 696.
Ms Petersen said the adjudication strategy was two-pronged. The first phase involved establishing a case file (pre-adjudication), conducting medical and legal assessments (adjudication), and communicating with stakeholders (post-adjudication). The second phase covered strategic support for the adjudication process.
Referring to the legislative and regulatory framework within which ITSAA operated, she said regulations were currently being drawn up and would be circulated for public comment by the end of October.
Ms Petersen said the Tribunal wanted to move from a national to a provincial footprint, so that it could get closer to the communities it served. This would be achieved through the appointment of provincial co-ordinators with dedicated resources to deal with both the backlog and new cases. It was proposed that the three current regional clusters would be replaced by nine functional provincial offices, with six co-ordinators handling KZN, Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Western and Northern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, and Free State and North West Province. The offices would be operational by April next year.
The process of enlisting provincial Tribunal members was under way, and advertisements calling for nominations from legal and medical practitioners, as well members of the public in good standing in their communities, would be placed in local newspapers in the next few weeks. Ms Petersen said the MECs and Heads of Departments in the DSD, as well as SASSA regional offices in Northern Cape, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Free State, had been visited during July 2010 to inform them of the ITSAA business and strategic plan, and further visits to the remaining provinces would take place during next month. She added that a further 20 EPWP workers would be deployed to the provinces, based on the needs in each province.
During June 2010, 55 medical practitioners were enlisted to perform medical case assessments, and four lawyers were enlisted as chairpersons to adjudicate backlog appeals during documentary hearings. A further seven lawyers would be enlisted to assist in the adjudication of backlog appeals.
Ms Petersen reported on the rapid increase in the number of backlog appeals which had been handled since April. The target for the April-June quarter had been 3 619 appeals, of which 3 134 had been considered – a shortfall of 485. This shortfall had been added to the July-September quarter target, making a total of 12 740. However, 3 113 appeals had been adjudicated in July and a further 5 588 up to August 29, bringing the overall target well within reach.
She forecast that the total backlog would be wiped out within 18 months, and that the normal response time after that would be within the 90-day target. A meeting had been requested with the SASSA Chief Executive Officer to discus and agree on time frames and turnaround times for appeals which had been submitted to SASSA offices and then forwarded to the relevant ITSAA provincial offices, to ensure appeals were dealt with within the targeted period.
A challenge facing the Tribunal was to ensure that letters sent to appellants were actually received. Apart from normal postal problems, many of the addressees lived in areas where there was no service at all. Breakdowns in the communication process were often the cause of litigation. She said she expected the introduction of the provincial “footprint”, and a better tracking system, would help to improve the situation.
Ms Petersen said litigious matters were related mostly to requests for scheduled dates for adjudication hearings, and for outcome letters of Tribunal decisions. She was concerned, however, that while it was every person’s right to have access to the fair process of the law, it seemed that some lawyers were exploiting the situation by shopping around for clients. By mid-August, the litigation case load had reached 7 652, of which 6 579 were in KZN. So far, 6 536 of these cases had been dealt with.
She said ITSAA’s response time to appeals and litigious appeal matters was hampered by the lack of an operational business information system, including telephone lines and computerisation. Close co-operation with SASSA was also necessary to ensure it submitted appeal matters to ITSAA timeously, and implemented ITSAA’s appeal decisions. Currently there was a huge backlog at SASSA regarding the implementation of the Tribunal’s appeal decisions, which posed a litigation risk.
The Chairperson complimented ITSAA on its performance in turning its operations around, and then asked what was being done to assist those who were in need, but did not qualify for a grant, to achieve self-sustainability.
Ms Petersen said the “NO” letter needed to be couched in easy-to-understand language, and should help to guide people to possible alternative sources of support. It was planned to use local radio stations, hospitals and clinics to reach out to communities and, where possible, to engage with people on a face-to-face basis.
Mr W. Faber (DA, Northern Cape) asked why support workers from the EPWP had been recruited only in the Gauteng area and not from the other provinces as well.
Ms Petersen replied that all the files for the whole country had been stored at City Deep at the time the first group had been recruited. With the reorganisation into the provinces, future recruitment would take place at a local level.
Mr Faber referred to the high rejection rate for disability grants, compared to other types of grants, and asked what the reason for this was. He also wanted to know why there were so many appeals in KZN.
Ms Petersen said the current economic situation drove people who were unemployed, or suffering from a chronic illness, to seek relief through a disability grant. In the past, panels considering these cases had been motivated by compassion to provide assistance, and this had resulted in some wrong decisions being made. Now people who did not have disabilities did not qualify for a grant.
As far as KZN was concerned, she attributed the high number of appeals to the fact that the area had the longest-serving board of appeal, and there was a better understanding of the appeals process.
Mr M de Villiers (DA, Western Cape) asked whether ITSAA had any other proposals for communicating with communities beyond using free-issue newspapers.
Ms Petersen said community newspapers were an effective medium, but needed to be supplemented by word- of-mouth communication, making use of traditional leaders in the area.
Mr T Mashamaite (ANC, Limpopo), expressed concern that the provincial offices would be located mainly in urban areas, making it difficult for ITSAA to reach rural communities.
Ms Petersen said ITSAA lacked the resources for fund its own premises, and was negotiating with DSD and SASSA for office space. While these would provide a base for its operations, it was recognised that ITSAA needed to get to the outer reaches of the provinces to be fully effective. Many appeals were not getting through because they were from rural areas. She said that where people were struggling to get to ITSAA, it was up to the Tribunal to get to the people. She also expressed the hope that people in remote areas would be able to be contacted electronically in the future.
The Chairperson asked if statistics were available to identify how many women were represented in the appeals cases dealt with by ITSAA.
Ms Petersen said this information could be drawn from their data banks, and would be e-mailed back to the Committee.
Mr De Villiers asked why more than 20 000 applications for old age grants had been rejected.
Ms Antoinette Brink, Director: Appeals, DSD, said the vast majority were rejected because applicants did not qualify in terms of the means test.
Mr De Villiers asked whether any psychological support was available to panel members, who were continuously being asked to make difficult decisions regarding people in distress.
Dr Makgatole Mampane, Appeals Tribunal, DSD, said the doctors and lawyers who sat on the appeals panels were registered professionals who had experience in dealing with people with disabilities. Ms Petersen added that the psychological impact of a panelist’s work was addressed through training and de-briefing sessions.
The Chairperson thanked the ITSAA delegation for its informative presentation.
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