Government Backs Down On Disabled Students Allowance Changes After Legal Action

Disabled Campaigners Celebrating U-Turn On DSA Changes After Permission Granted for Judicial Review


Campaigners who launched a legal challenge to proposed cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) are celebrating today after the Government backed down and postponed its plans to allow more time for consultation.

Two disabled young people represented by specialist lawyers at Irwin Mitchell were last month given the green light to launch a judicial review on behalf of disabled students who felt ‘ignored’ due to the Government’s failure to consult on proposed restrictions to grants which could prevent many disabled people from accessing higher education.

However the department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has now backed down on plans to implement its plans to limit the support offered by DSA this year and has postponed any changes until 2016-17.

A BIS letter to charities said the changes “should be deferred until 2016/17 and that these changes would only be made once continued consultation with the sector and stakeholders has taken place”.

Awarded to over 60,000 students with a range of disabilities from sensory impairment to mental health conditions, DSA pays for support such as support workers, specialist equipment and accommodation which helps them complete their studies. Published figures show that in 2012/13, nearly £150m was spent on DSA for undergraduate students.

However, under proposals announced in April last year and subject to a consultation which closed on 20 February 2015, the Government planned to reduce DSA for items including specialist equipment and accommodation and instead expect the universities to meet the shortfall.

Irwin Mitchell, with the support of the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) and Ambitious about Autism, challenged the way in which BIS consulted on the proposed changes. Granting permission for the Judicial Review to proceed last month, Mrs Justice Laing said she was “not impressed” with the argument that there was no duty to consult.

Alex Rook a specialist public lawyer at Irwin Mitchell leading the case said:

Expert Opinion
“Thousands of students are reliant on this support to enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding higher education, but the proposals meant there was a real concern many could be left without the help they need.

"We believe the student community should have been given a proper chance to have their voices heard on this matter prior to any decision being made and we are delighted that government has done a U-turn on plans to introduce the changes this year.

"There is much confusion regarding these plans, with even our partner charities not being sure what they will mean for many disabled people going forward. It is vital that these plans are given proper consideration and we are determined to ensure our clients can access the help they require and deserve."
Alex Rook, Partner

Irwin Mitchell brought the legal challenge on behalf of a student with hearing difficulties who hopes to start university in September - when the changes were set to begin – and a current student with autism who receives DSA.

Both say they have major concerns regarding the consultation process into the proposals and believe the plans could prevent many disabled students from accessing a university education or being able to complete their studies.

One of the claimants is Zanna Messenger-Jones, 17, from Ireleth, Cumbria. She is profoundly deaf in her right ear and severely deaf in her left ear, and wears hearing aids and an implant as a result. Zanna is currently applying for Art and Design or Fashion Design courses at several universities, but without DSA it is uncertain whether she will get the support she needs to follow group discussion classes and Q&As between teachers and other students.

She is currently provided some specialist equipment and software by her college and audiology centre, but she cannot take these with her to University as they are not owned by her. She will also need adaptions to halls of residence, such as a flashing fire alarm and adapted doorbell with visual signals.

Zanna said: “I’m really worried that if I don’t receive the appropriate support in terms of DSA at the beginning of the academic year it could seriously impact my studies. To not have been asked about the changes is not right and I want to be informed about what is proposed and have my views heard.”

Irwin Mitchell’s second client is 19-year-old Joseph Bell, who has autism and began studying Physics, Astrophysics and Cosmology at Lancaster University in October 2014. His condition means he experiences a high degree of anxiety, particularly in unfamiliar environments or when his daily routines are disrupted.

When he began university, DSA ensured Joseph had an assistant to support him when he first arrived at University to help him settle into university life, while it continues to fund vital support for him.

Joseph, who is a Youth Patron for Ambitious about Autism, said: “Just because I made it to University, does not mean I'll cope without support. Without DSA, the trivial things would become impossible for me. This also applies to many future disabled students, who are being ignored by the Government.”

Susan Daniels, CEO for the National Deaf Children’s Society said: “This announcement will come as a relief to students who rely on the Disabled Students’ Allowance to provide the vital support needed to access their course.

“The proposed changes threatened to severely compromise deaf young people’s access to Higher Education. It was unacceptable that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was proposing to push ahead without consulting those most directly affected. Deaf students like Zanna should not have to take legal action to force the Government to listen.

“We now look forward to working with the Government to ensure there are proper safeguards in place to protect deaf students’ support in Higher Education.”

Chief Executive of Ambitious about Autism, Jolanta Lasota said: “Currently almost 2,500 students with autism in higher education access the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). Students with autism use DSA  to help them achieve by funding support from mentors and study buddies to manage their time, finances, or to help them cope with some of the social aspects of university.
“Ambitious about Autism was disappointed that changes to DSA were proposed without any proper consultation with disabled students. DSA is critical for students with autism and many tell us that they simply would not manage in university without having this additional support. It will be a great relief to next year’s disabled students that DSA will remain available.

“However, we’re concerned what the next government will do in 2016/17 and we hope it will listen to common sense and take into account the needs of these students and the negative impact on them and the economy of not supporting them.”

The claimants and Irwin Mitchell are currently reviewing whether the application for judicial review will proceed in the light of the government’s change of position.

Ian Wise QC and Steve Broach of Monckton Chambers were instructed by Irwin Mitchell as counsel for the claimants.

Read more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in Protecting Your Rights.