Charities have welcomed a High Court judge’s ruling that the Government took an “unlawful and unacceptably long time” to pay new welfare benefits to two disabled people.
The judge said the unnamed claimants were not to be treated as test cases.
But many organisations working with vulnerable people say thousands of others have suffered because of similar delays and may also have been treated unlawfully.
The claimants, Ms C and Mr W, had asked the judge to declare that Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith breached his common law and human rights duties to provide them with personal independence payments (Pips) within a reasonable time.
Mrs Justice Patterson, sitting in London, declared that the delay in both cases was “not only unacceptable, as conceded by the defendant, but was unlawful”.
The judge was told many disabled people had been forced to turn to loan sharks and food banks because it was taking “months and months and months” to get access to payments.
Pips are replacing the disability living allowance (DLA) in sweeping Government reforms of the benefits system. They are designed to help disabled adults meet the extra costs caused by disability.
Both cases had called for “expeditious consideration” as the claimants suffered significant disabilities and were to be regarded as “the most vulnerable people in society”.
She added: “There can be no public interest in delays such as was the case here.”
Ms C, from Kent, has been diagnosed with ME and suffers from severe depression and other health problems.
She said: “I was completely isolated during the nine months I was waiting for my payments.”
Food bank provider the Trussell Trust said delays to benefits payments were one of the major reasons for people seeking help.
Chairman Chris Mould said: “In those circumstances people often wait months with their payments suspended whilst the review machinery grinds through its process.”
Anne-Marie Irwin, specialist public lawyer at Irwin Mitchell who acted for the claimants, said the ruling “sends a clear message that the unacceptable delays faced by many people may also be unlawful”.
The court judgment is the latest setback for the DWP, which has also suffered from problems over the introduction of the Universal Credit, but No 10 said David Cameron “fully supports” the approach they had taken.
Downing Street acknowledged there had been “problems” in the early phase of the introduction of Pips.
The Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman said: “The Government has taken steps to address this, bringing in 800 more staff, increasing the number of health professionals working on it, and we are now starting to see progress.
“The measures that they have brought in on Pip mean that claimants are now only waiting seven weeks for an assessment and the backlog is coming down.”