I remained standing, nervously awaiting the verdict.
'You will be pleased to hear that the jury has found in favour of your appeal.'
I was ecstatic. I wanted to fling my arms around family and friends, as the victorious parties do in all the best courtroom dramas. But there were no family or friends around, and this was no courtroom drama.
I was standing before a Social Security Appeal Tribunal (SSAT), an independent body set up to assess claims of unfair treatment by the Department of Social Security. After a three-month battle over income support, I had come to plead my case before a jury.
In October 1992, as an unemployed English graduate, I attempted to break the no-experience-no-job cycle by taking up a full-time unpaid work placement with the Winsford Guardian, a weekly newspaper close to my home in Cheshire.
The experience I gained there led to three job interviews and a place on a journalism course at Darlington College of Technology.
The fact that I was 'working' for more than 16 hours a week immediately complicated my claim at the benefit office, despite the fact that there are a number of full-time Government schemes that offer people experience (and even some pay) without affecting their benefits.
This was no longer a straightforward claim, the woman advised me. It would have to be sent away for consideration, and it might be a while before I heard from them again.
Three weeks into my work placement I was told by the DSS that my claim for income support had been rejected. They considered that I was in 'remunerative employment', even though I was receiving no money from my employer. The newspaper, they said, could and should be paying for my time, and this disqualified me from any state benefit.
Incensed with a system that seemed to be penalising me for seeking work too actively, I contacted the benefits office.
They suggested that I should (a) phone the Prime Minister, as he made all the laws, or (b) stop work experience. I asked the adviser whether she thought it reasonable that I should have to abandon my most effective means of getting a job just to claim benefit.
'Oh, I don't think, love,' she replied. 'I work here.'
For people who find themselves in this position, a Social Security Appeal Tribunal is the only resort. A simple letter of complaint to an adjudicating officer is enough to set the proceedings in motion; the appeal is automatically passed to the SSAT, which takes over the case and deals directly with the claimant.
Of the cases that reach the tribunals, about 50 per cent result in success for the claimant. But it is a long process and many appeals are abandoned.
The tribunal consists of a lawyer, who chairs the hearing, and two volunteers from the public who make up the jury. Expenses are paid to all claimants who attend, regardless of the outcome of the case, and the Citizen's Advice Bureau offers help and a representative for the hearing if needed.
The law says that a single person who earns, or expects to earn, more than pounds 33 a week is not entitled to income support. No tribunal can change this. But there are also many Government guidelines that must be interpreted by the DSS in the light of every claim. It is these that can be challenged.
The tribunal accepted that work experience on a newspaper should not be classed as 'remunerative employment' since it benefits the employee more than the employer, and that the DSS had been wrong to refuse my claim.
For me, the decision meant the belated arrival of a cheque for pounds 100, and a lot of personal satisfaction.
My victory could also offer a much- needed example to people who, in their efforts to find work, manage to fall foul of the benefit claim system.Reuse content