Catharine Seddon is a Fee-Paid Disability Member of the First-tier Tribunal, Social Entitlement Chamber.
The tribunal mainly deals with appeals against decisions about social security benefits, including Disability Living Allowance.
I was a full time TV producer running my own company but for many reasons was looking for a change of direction. Someone pointed out an advert for the tribunal and initially I did not think I would be eligible, but then realised I qualified on a number of accounts because of my professional and personal knowledge of a wide range of disabilities.
My son was born with multiple, complex disabilities. It was a total shock and I went through a steep learning curve. I quickly acquired experience in emergency treatment, intensive care, physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and all the equipment necessary to look after my child. After a while I was asked to start counselling other parents, advise Scope, and even lecture to UCL medical students about the practicalities and family pressures involved in having a child with multiple disabilities. I also qualified as a teacher of Cued Speech and started presenting and lobbying for the National Association. I have since taught Cued Speech to many other parents and professionals. I also became a trustee of two special needs charities.
The tribunal deals with eight cases per day and you are sent the papers in advance so you can prepare. As you read through the files you have to take detailed notes of everything in the medical and social backgrounds to formulate questions which will test the written evidence. The quality of the oral evidence depends on the questions asked and in nearly all cases what is said in the hearing is crucial to the decision-making.
Disability Living Allowance has two elements - mobility and care - and there are very strict criteria for each level of award. Before every case, you discuss with the other two judicial members - a judge and a doctor - what you think the issues are and where you feel the questioning should go. The doctor will ask about the medical conditions and maybe mobility and then it's over to me to ask about any outstanding mobility issues and the effects of those conditions on daily living - I often do the bulk of the questioning. You need to be able to speak spontaneously, rather than stick to your prepared questions, and to deal sensitively with appellants who may be fearful, embarrassed, volatile or even abusive.
After hearing the appeal, the judicial members sit together and we are asked by the judge for our findings of fact in the case and what award, if any, should be made and why. We discuss the appropriate decision and will be influenced by what each other say. It is a joint decision and no one judicial member takes precedence over another. If there is a disagreement, often one member will be persuaded by another's view, but the tribunal can also make a majority decision.
When I was appointed, I did wonder whether I would get bored seeing the same conditions coming up over and over again, but you never get two people who are exactly the same or who have the same injury, pain or functional disability. I also get real satisfaction from knowing that, in justice I've also helped ensure the proper distribution of public funds. I'm sure we don't always get it right, but on the whole, I believe the appeals we do allow correctly apply the law and the appeals we turn down we are right to turn down. I'd encourage anyone to apply: it's important judicial work and - in human terms - really fascinating: you often feel very humbled by the people who come before you.
Catharine is also a magistrate, a non-executive director of a national regulator and has specialist lay positions in the Employment Tribunals and First-tier Tribunal, Health Education and Social Care Chamber (Mental Health).