Landmark Supreme Court Case Set To Clarify Social Care Law

Charities Seek To Clarify How Local Authorities Assess Disabled People’s Needs


Date: 7 and 8 February 2012
Time: 10.00 a.m.
Where: Supreme Court, London
What: KM v Cambridgeshire County Council. KM – blind, some hearing loss, autistic, wheelchair user – was offered a care package that he argues did not meet his needs.

As part of the case, four national charities (Sense, National Autistic Society, RNIB and Guide Dogs) seek to clarify whether a local authority can take their financial resources into account when they are assessing someone’s needs.


A landmark community care case is set to be heard in the Supreme Court in which KM, a severely disabled person, and four national charities will seek to clarify whether a council can take its finances into account when assessing people for social care. The aim is to ensure people with disabilities receive a proper assessment of their needs.

Representatives from the national charities say the legal challenge, being brought on their behalf by public law experts at Irwin Mitchell Solicitors, could have far-reaching implications for disabled people across the country.

All four organisations are united in their bid to overturn a previous ruling in 1997 by the House of Lords which concluded that the resources of a local authority may be taken into account when determining the care needs of individuals.

As a result local authorities currently assess and meet an individual’s needs taking into account the resources they have available – rather than first establishing the person’s full individual needs.  This leads to a situation whereby a persons needs could be different depending upon where in the country they live.

But the charities have been given permission to proceed with a legal intervention in an ongoing case brought by a disabled person, known only as KM to protect his identity, against the lawfulness of the adult social care policy of Cambridgeshire County Council (*background below). If the appeal is successful, it will mean that every local authority in England and Wales will have to reconsider how it assesses the needs of disabled people. 

The Secretary of State for Health has also intervened in the case and the Supreme Court has allocated seven judges to hear the legal arguments, demonstrating the potential national significance of any judgment.

The charities will argue that the law has been misinterpreted and that each individual should be assessed in the first instance in terms of what care they need, rather than the local authority’s financial position.

Alex Rook, from the Public Law team at Irwin Mitchell, who is representing the charities, said: “This is potentially the biggest community care case for 15 years. The court will hear submissions on behalf of the national charities that they seek to end the inequity of the current situation and determine once and for all that care needs are care needs regardless of the local authority in question.  Each of the charities firmly believe that a person’s individual needs are the same regardless of whether they live in Hackney or Harrogate.

“Our clients have long campaigned to ensure there is complete transparency in terms of what an individual’s care needs are. Despite the difficult current economic climate, this should not mean that people miss out on the crucial social care they need.”

Richard Leaman, Chief Executive of Guide Dogs said: “We and our fellow charities want to ensure that all disabled adults can have a fair, systematic assessment of their needs before the local authority decides how to meet those needs.”

Simon Foster, Head of Legal Services at Sense, a national charity for deafblind people, says: “We want an open and transparent system whereby local authorities assess disabled people in the first instance based on their needs, rather than what the local authority can financially afford. Too often Councils do not focus on the care that someone actually needs but on their own available budget. We want the Supreme Court to clarify what the law requires, so that deafblind people and others with social care needs, as well as local authorities, are clear on the assessment process.”

Mark Lever, Chief Executive of The National Autistic Society (NAS), said: “We intend to invite the court to declare that local authorities must be transparent about how they allocate funding to disabled individuals. Without transparency there is a real danger that the reasoning behind a monetary award will be based on a ‘computer says so’ system rather than a fair assessment of an individual's needs.

“Currently, NAS research indicates that 63 per cent of adults of autism say they don’t have enough support to meet their needs – 82 per cent of this group say with more support they would be less isolated. All disabled people have the right to lead a fulfilling and rewarding life as possible. Whilst we appreciate the challenging economic context in which local authorities are operating, assessments must be fair and the system must recognise that an individual's needs will be the same, regardless of where they live.”

* Background

KM  is a young man, aged 26, with a range of serious physical and mental disabilities. He was born with no eyes or optic nerves, has learning difficulties and an autistic spectrum disorder. He has other medical problems including a growth hormone deficiency, spinal disease, lung and hearing problems and a rare condition known as septo-optic dysplasia. Despite all this he has many abilities. He can use Braille. He can communicate. Despite a disrupted education, he has obtained GCSE's in French and music. He has a certificate in drumming. He plays the piano and the clarinet. He is keen on jazz and composes his own rhythm and blues music. But he needs significant support in, for instance, feeding and self care and other aspects of living, and he needs a guide outside his home. He lives at home with his mother and younger brother and sister.