The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Fukuoka authorities acted illegally to cut a family’s welfare benefits because it had saved some of the aid for a daughter’s education fund.
Although the top court dismissed the family’s demand for compensation for the amount deducted from their benefits, their lawyers hailed the ruling as a landmark decision that cautions against rigid restrictions on how welfare recipients use the money.
In response to the ruling, a Fukuoka welfare office that had handled the family’s case said it would review its 1990 decision to cut their benefits.
The suit was brought by Toyoji Nakashima, a carpenter who died at age 61 while the case was being deliberated in the Fukuoka District Court, and his daughters, Akiko, 31, and Tomoko, 27.
They filed the suit in December 1991 against the director of the Fukuoka municipal welfare office for cutting the family’s monthly benefits to 95,000 yen from 180,000 yen between July and December 1990.
The city cut the benefits after discovering that Nakashima had been paying 3,000 yen a month since 1976 into an education endowment insurance that yielded 450,000 yen upon maturity in June 1990. He was paying into the insurance to cover the cost of sending one of his daughters to high school.
The welfare office reportedly determined that most of the 450,000 yen constituted income for the family that would necessitate cuts in welfare benefits.
“If the use of the money is in line with the basic idea of the Daily Life Protection Law, savings from the welfare benefits should not be considered assets that can be counted as income,” said presiding Justice Tokiyasu Fujita of the Third Petty Bench of the top court.
In lower court proceedings, the former Health and Welfare Ministry insisted that welfare benefits must be used only for basic living expenses, which it maintained do not include education.
In Tuesday’s ruling, Fujita said the Daily Life Protection Law does not in principle assume that recipients would save money out of the benefits.
However, he said it is difficult for recipients to match exactly their demand and the amount of benefits.
“It is reasonable to interpret the law as allowing the head of the family to manage household expenses in a rational manner,” he said, noting that it would be possible for the recipients to save some of the benefits by cutting back on expenses.
Fujita also ruled that it does not run counter to the principle of the law for the recipients to save money for their children’s education.
“It is a historic ruling” that clearly allows welfare benefit recipients to save money for future expenses, said Akira Arai, one of the lawyers for the family.
“It is a well-written, straightforward ruling that leaves no room for further bureaucratic interpretation,” Arai told reporters in Tokyo.
In Fukuoka, plaintiff Akiko Iriguchi said she was elated and glad that she had pushed ahead with the lawsuit even after the death of her parents.
Now a mother of one, Iriguchi said she can understand what her parents might have been thinking when they were saving up for her education.
“It felt like a long time, especially after the high court ruling. But I think my parents would be happy, too.”
Critics have charged that current administrative rules on how welfare benefits are used represent excessive intervention in the recipients’ lives, and a number of other lawsuits have been filed.
Government authorities tightened such rules in the 1980s as they revised overall welfare administration amid the rapid aging of the population, and in light of criticism that people linked to the underworld were receiving welfare benefits.
In 1983, a government administrative reform panel urged authorities to “properly grasp the assets and income” of recipients.
Tuesday’s top court ruling was basically in line with earlier rulings by the Fukuoka High Court and Fukuoka District Court.
In March 1995, the district court dismissed the family’s claim to have the benefits returned, saying the suit ended with the father’s death.
However, it criticized the policy of not allowing welfare recipients to save, saying it was impossible for the family to send the children to high school without savings.