So, you have received a letter from Service Canada. Your reconsideration appeal has been denied, but you are invited to continue your appeal to the Social Security Tribunal. In this article, I cover five mistakes you must avoid if you decide to represent yourself at the Social Security Tribunal.
This article is the last in our series on mistakes to avoid when you represent yourself. In the previous two articles, I covered mistakes to avoid during your initial CPP disability application, and mistakes to avoid when doing your reconsideration appeal.
All three articles are part of our Ultimate Guide to CPP Disability.
You have only dealt with Service Canada up to this point. Their decisions were based on their review of your written application and appeal submissions.
The Social Security Tribunal (SST) is a major change. Now, the decision-maker is independent from Service Canada. They will base their decision on an in-person hearing where they hear from you, Service Canada, and any other witnesses. During the hearing you have a chance to speak directly with the judge and to answer any questions they may have.
It is important to know that your hearing with the Social Security Tribunal is also your last chance to submit documents and evidence to support your appeal. If you don’t submit important documents before the hearing deadlines, it is like those documents don’t exist. If the hearing goes against you, you can’t submit important documents after the fact. Any appeals beyond your tribunal hearing are based only on the documents that were before the judge.
With all of that in mind, I will now review what I believe are the biggest mistakes people make when representing themselves at the Social Security Tribunal.
Mistake #1: Missing the deadline to appeal
This is a common mistake that comes up at all levels of appeal. Once you receive Service Canada’s letter denying your reconsideration appeal, you have 90 days to file your notice of appeal with the Social Security Tribunal.
Many people procrastinate. They believe they must have all the documents necessary to support their appeal. This is not true. What you have to do first is send a form that confirms your intent to appeal. Once that’s done, you have up to one year to prepare your appeal submissions and gather supporting documents. Once you file a proper request for appeal, the 90-day deadline ends and you have a new one-year deadline to prepare your appeal.
We recommend you use the official Notice of Appeal Form when advising the Social Security Tribunal that you wish to appeal.
Mistake #2: Failing to gather and submit the necessary medical records and other document evidence to support your appeal
We cannot emphasise how important it is to gather and submit the necessary medical records and other documents to support your appeal.
Medical records and other official documents are some of the strongest evidence. The tribunal judge will hold these documents in high regard. If these supportive records exist, but you don’t send them to the Tribunal, then it’s as if these records don’t exist for purposes of your hearing.
The hard part is identifying the documents you need to get to win your case. That happens through careful case analysis of your claim — a process that lawyers and most advocates are familiar with.
Many people who represent themselves don’t realize how critical these official records and documents are to prove disability. For example, if you know your psychiatrist is supportive of your case and has told you so on many occasions, it is critical that they put that in writing. And it’s even more critical that you submit the document to the Tribunal before the deadline. If you just tell the judge that your psychiatrist is supportive, the judge is much less likely to believe you.
Mistake #3: Failing to prepare detailed and persuasive written submissions for the judge
Most people who represent themselves are unable to prepare persuasive written submissions for the judge. They either fail to prepare any submissions at all, or because the submissions are inexperienced and ineffective. In the worst case scenario, an ill-prepared submission can actually harm your case.
Written advocacy is not easy. Lawyers receive extensive training in written advocacy, but even then it takes years of practice to achieve a high level of competence. The goal of your brief is to combine all of the facts and evidence into a story that persuades the judge to rule in your favour.
Legal advocacy is especially hard because it requires you to focus on what is persuasive to the decision-maker (in this case the tribunal judge). Your story must focus on what the tribunal judge believes and expects. This is very hard to do. Most people who represent themselves will focus on what they personally find most important. This leads to a less-than-optimal case presentation, and can be the reason why a person loses a winnable case.
I cannot overstate the importance of providing the judge with a detailed and persuasive written brief in advance of the hearing. A well written brief will frame your story in the judge’s mind and make it much easier to win your case at the hearing.
Mistake #4: Focusing your testimony on the wrong things
To maximize your chances of winning, your testimony and presentation at the tribunal hearing should supplement what was in your written submissions — not repeat it. As I mentioned in mistake #3, you must focus on what the tribunal judge knows and expects. You need to anticipate the areas where the judge will want further information or clarification and then focus your testimony and presentation on those areas.
Additionally, you will want to organize your testimony into logical categories or topics. Then, when the judge hears the testimony, they will immediately recognize its significance and relevance to your situation. This makes it easier for them to understand and keep their attention on what you are saying.
This is all much easier said than done. Many people will get nervous at the hearing and just start talking. They will jump from one topic to the next. This will make it difficult for the judge to follow what you’re saying or see the significance of the information.
I had one client in particular who was particularly bad at this. After much practice and coaching, I got her to stop doing it. But she became nervous when we got to the hearing. I asked her the first question and she answered it, but then launched into a long-winded statement that skipped between topics. It was impossible to follow and I had to jump in several times to cut her off. If I hadn’t, we would have run out of time without covering the most important information.
We ended up winning her case, but I fear without our representation her case would not have been approved. When push came to shove, she was incapable of presenting her case effectively.
Mistake #5: Waiting until your hearing is scheduled to contact a lawyer
Unfortunately, many people wait until the last minute to hire a lawyer. This is a big mistake. By the time your hearing is scheduled, you can’t submit documents and evidence to support your claim.
The biggest value a lawyer brings is that they can easily identify and gather the right evidence to support a winning narrative. Also, a detailed written legal brief for the judge is critical to success in many cases. The hearing is only 90 minutes long. Having a detailed legal brief and written submissions are very important to correctly frame your case and ensure success. The earlier you hire a lawyer, the greater impact they will have in getting your claim approved. Getting a lawyer involved earlier may even mean your claim gets approved before the tribunal hearing.
Now you know the 5 mistakes you must avoid if you choose to represent yourself at a CPP Tribunal hearing.
At this point, you may not feel completely confident doing it alone — and I don’t blame you. You might see weaknesses in your case but not know how to get around them. You might just be overwhelmed and want somebody to take the reins.
I recommend contacting us, or another law firm, for a free consultation. You’re under no obligation to hire us, and sometimes one quick call is all we need to help set things straight. At the very least, we can set you up with more resources to help you towards success.
To book a free consultation, please call us toll-free at 888-732-0470 or click here to schedule online.