Building the skills to avoid benefit sanctions

Due to recent changes to the welfare system, an increasing number of people are finding themselves sanctioned. The effects of sanctions are wide-reaching, leaving many confronting destitution, poverty, and homelessness as likely outcomes. Those most affected by sanctions are the most vulnerable who face various issues in navigating the welfare system and can struggle to maintain their benefits, and avoid and challenge sanctions. With an increasingly digitised system and a lengthy waiting time for receiving the full rate of entitlement, people with mental health problems are being disproportionately affected. 

Law for Life was granted funding from the National Lottery to help people understand and build the skills needed to avoid benefit sanctions. The funding allowed us to develop a self-help guide on How to deal with benefit sanctions and deliver community based public legal education (PLE) workshops for intermediaries working with people who are more likely to incur into sanctions.

The workshops were delivered in partnership with the Bridge Mental Health Support, a charity which works with adults experiencing long term mental health needs, and the Public Law project.


What Law for Life’s project did


In order to develop our workshops and survival guide, we ran a consultation consisting of an online survey and a focus group discussion with staff and managers at the Bridge Mental Health Support. We had 26 respondents to the survey who were asked if their service users were benefit claimants, if they had faced sanctions, the reasons they have been sanctioned, their ability to challenge them, the effects of sanctions, and what support the respondents felt they needed in order to best address these issues.

‘Sanctioning a man with mental health issues because he hasn’t returned a form in time, and then refusing to reinstate, is not humane treatment of the vulnerable and ill. No one knows what has happened to him. He was last seen around Waterloo, homeless.’

This quote is from our survey of staff at Bridge Mental Health. The responses to our survey echoed recent findings on the negative outcomes of benefit sanctions.

Attending an interview, can cause huge anxiety amongst our users, which in turn can result in clients being unable to attend. Despite, knowing how significant the meeting is and consequences they may be subject to.’

Others, like benefit claimants of all types, struggle with the complexity and demands of the system:

Not understanding what is expected of them, for example, they may need regular sick notes, or not applying for the allotted amount of jobs.

We carried out the survey to help us better understand the barriers and challenges that people with mental health problems face when experiencing benefit sanctions, as part of our new public legal education project to help people build the skills to avoid benefit sanctions.

A recent study on welfare conditionality adds to the growing body of research that indicates that benefit sanctions are ineffective in supporting people into work and routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial and health outcomes.

We used the findings from the survey together with focus group findings to develop training for staff at Bridge Mental Health to equip them to better support their service users to avoid being sanctioned in the first place, and therefore the negative effects that sanctions trigger.


In April 2019 we held two workshops, the first to 17 people with the majority from the Bridge, and the second a week later to 12 people solely from the Bridge. The workshops were focused on building an understanding of what a sanction is, why one can be sanctioned, what commitments benefit claimants have, and the different levels of sanctions for different categories of claimants, as well as identifying ways to help clients avoid sanctions, deal with sanctions, and be able to signpost claimants to relevant referral mechanisms. Our training addressed the basics of Universal Credit, and while many had a grasp of the problems claimants face while on UC, many were shocked at the length of time sanctions can be imposed for.

Survival Guide

We also created a mini information series on avoiding benefit sanctions which is available to all on the Advicenow website.The survival guide was published at the beginning of April 2019. It has been described as a ‘Clear and easy to follow guide’.

Further training

We hope that the resources generated through this project will be used by a variety of groups, service providers and individuals and will bring increasing confidence in their legal skills to people across the country. We wish to invite groups who experience issues with benefits and would like to receive training to build their skills around avoiding and challenging sanctions to contact us at:


Why this project was necessary

Universal Credit roll out

Universal Credit was introduced in 2013 to replace six means-tested benefits and tax credits. It is being rolled out across the UK. Universal Credit places a greater emphasis on full-time job searching and working. Sanctions for not complying can be applied for up to three years. Universal Credit claimants are more likely to be sanctioned than claimants of other benefits.

With this context in mind Law for Life secured funding from Awards for All to develop and deliver public legal education (PLE) workshops and an online information series focused on helping people understand and build the skills needed to avoid unnecessary benefit sanctions. We aim to help people address issues at an early stage and prevent unnecessary hardship. The community element of our project will focus on the needs of people with mental health problems.

Impact of sanctions on mental health service users

We learned from our survey that the effects of benefit sanctions on mental health service users at Bridge Mental Health fall into two main overlapping categories. The first is financial hardship:

‘They have the real decision of either eating or paying a bill to maintain their current debt.’

‘…we find we're turning to foodbanks more and more just for users to survive.’

The second impact that emerged in our survey was the negative effect that sanctioning had on service users’ mental health, which in turn reduced their ability to engage with both the benefits system and their mental health care plan. Survey respondents talked of stress, anxiety, panic and depression:

‘When cut, we have had one guy leave the site entirely, he left the country. His benefits being cut, was a part of the stress that made him relapse and leave the hub.’

Our survey suggests that benefit claimants with mental health problems appear trapped in a catch-22 situation. Their mental health condition means that it is challenging for them to comply with the conditions both of paid employment and the system that is meant to support them if they are out of work or on a low income. And furthermore, being sanctioned for failure to comply with the conditions can often worsen their mental health, which can mean that they are even less likely to comply with conditions.

For further inquiries about this project, please contact Francesca Feruglio:

Please see our full report here : Benefit sanctions full report


We are grateful to Awards for All from the Big Lottery Fund for funding this project.

Law for life is a charity dedicated to ensuring that people have the knowledge, confidence and skills needed to deal with the problems that affect their lives. We provide multimedia information and education that explains how to manage legal situations in a straight-forward way. We run the award-winning Advicenow website providing a hand-picked and checked information service that draws together the best up-to-date information about the law and rights available on the internet. And we support other organisations around the world to help their users make sense of the law through our research, consultancy and training.

If you would like more information about this project, please contact us.