Patience with the worker’€™s compensation commission has run out.

The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in Pretoria has taken the Worker’€™s Compensation Commissioner to court twice in the last year – and won.

After years of frustration, the LRC finally took the Compensation Commisioner to court about the interminable delays workers must endure before they are finally compensated for occupational injuries and diseases.

The Compensation Commissioner was found guilty of unreasonable delay. This delay was recognised by the High Court as being unlawful and deserving of a penalty in the form of interest payments. This is the first time a court has ordered the payment of interest by a statutory body.

“The Commissioner’€™s staff seem to hold the belief that they have no responsibility to ensure that claimants are speedily compensated and that it doesn’€™t matter how long it takes for claims to be resolved,” says Paula Howell, an attorney at the LRC.

The LRC is now considering taking the Compensation Commissioner to court again, this time concerning delays in the objection process whereby rejected claims can be disputed.

“We were informed by the Commissioner’€™s that only one objection could be heard each day. So the 600 or so objections they receive annually means that the claimant can wait over a year for his or her case to be heard. Having more panels sitting daily seems to be an impossibility. The LRC does not accept this ‘€“ it may have to be resolved by the courts ultimately,” says Paula Howell.

Delayed payment has an extremely negative impact on claimants. Until the Commissioner decides to grant compensation, the worker who is unable to work because of disability is left destitute.

When injured workers are laid off, those who have housing allowances may not be able to make the required bond re-payments. By the time they get to see their compensation, they have often lost their houses, which could easily have been avoided had their payments been on time, says Howell.

Although the cases which the LRC has won have established important precedents, Howell is uncertain as to whether future claimants will benefit.

“The administration of the system is so endemically incompetant,” says Howell, “that it is difficult to see how such precedents can be incorporated into the system.”

The Legal Resources Centre, which is a public interest law firm, currently has 100 workmen’€™s compensation cases in their Pretoria office’€™s books.

The LRC is not the only organisation which believes the compensation commission needs external pressure before it will get its house in order. Recently, the Public Protector received a signed petition from a variety of occupational health organisations requesting a commission of inquiry into the commissioner’€™s office.

Signatories to the petition state that that they are deeply concerned at the lack of fairness and effectiveness of the entire compensation system.

“In our experience, workers may wait more than five years to be paid out, even when their case has been accepted by the Commissioner,” states the submission.

The public protector has taken up the matter with the Compensation Commissioner. According to Busi Mkhwebane, the Public Protector’s Senior Investigator dealing with the case, recommendations will be made to the commissioner. If these are not complied with, the matter will be referred to parliament.

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