A judge at the High Court in London has ruled that the Government is legally entitled to recover overpayments of social security benefits, although the mistake was the fault of the department and not of the claimant.

Rejecting a test case brought by the Child Poverty Action Group, Deputy Judge Michael Supperstone QC held that a common law power existed to recover money that the claimant was not entitled to receive.

The decision is likely to be appealed, but if it stands - and is applied in Scotland - it could have serious implications for many thousands of individuals and families. Apparently in the 12 months to February 2007, 65,000 letters were sent out seeking to recover overpayments.

Apart from reducing the incentive on officials to get it right in the first place, those who by definition depend on these minimum levels of support will find their entitlement cut back further as long as there is money due to be repaid. No doubt in most cases the claimant will not have had the means or the ability to check the department's calculations, and will have spent the money in good faith.

If it is to insist on recovery, the Government at least has a moral duty to have the extent (i.e. how far back recovery should be allowed) and size of instalments subject to proper external control. Perhaps the fairest way would be a combination of legal limits plus the right on the claimant to ask the appeal tribunal to decide what would be fair in the individual case.

Otherwise the whole purpose of the benefit system as a safety net for the needy is likely to be undermined.