Landmark Supreme Court Judgement Clarifies Social Care Law

Important Ruling Clarifies Law For Disabled People Across The Country


A landmark Supreme Court judgement handed down today clarifies the law on whether a council can take its finances into account when assessing the needs of people for social care.

In the case of KM v Cambridgeshire CC, a blind, autistic, wheelchair user was offered a care package that he argued did not meet his needs sufficiently. As part of the case, a leading public lawyer at Irwin Mitchell representing four national charities (Sense, National Autistic Society, RNIB and Guide Dogs) sought to clarify whether a local authority can take their financial resources into account when they are assessing someone’s needs.

Although the court ruled against KM, the judgement has made it clear that “resources are not to be taken into account” when establishing the needs of disabled people. Some councils restricted assessments on the grounds of costs and some did not, which in the past resulted in a postcode lottery for social care.

Importantly, the court also made it clear that when social care support is provided by direct payments to the individual it is “crucial” that local authorities provide “a reasonable degree of detail so that a judgement can be made whether the indicative sum is too high, too low or about right.” 

Representatives from the national charities say the legal challenge is important as it clarifies the law for disabled people across the country.

Yogi Amin, Partner in the Public Law team at Irwin Mitchell, representing the four charities, said: “This is potentially the biggest community care ruling in 15 years. Although KM’s appeal has not been successful, we are pleased that the Supreme Court has now clarified the law with regard to local authorities taking their resources into account when assessing a disabled person’s needs.

“The previous judgement providing direction on this issue was Barry which is 15 years old, so it is great to now have further clarity and potentially see thousands of people get access to social care across the country.

“Each of the national charities who intervened in this case firmly believes that a person’s individual needs are the same regardless of where they live and have campaigned tirelessly to ensure there is complete transparency in terms of what an individual’s care needs are. They also argued for clarity over what is delivered in a care package – that also was an issue the Law Lords clarified and supported.”

All four organisations were united in their bid to clarify a previous ruling in 1997 by the House of Lords which suggested that the resources of a local authority may be taken into account when determining the care needs of individuals. The charities argued 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.

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 assessed needs could be viewed as different depending upon where in the country they live.

The charities were given permission to proceed with a legal intervention in the 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. The judgement now means that every local authority in England and Wales may have to reconsider how it assesses the needs of disabled people. 

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

Richard Leaman, Chief Executive of Guide Dogs, said: "While sympathising with KM and his mother that the Supreme Court judgement has not gone the way that they had hoped, we are delighted that this case has removed any ambiguity regarding the point at which a local authority is entitled to take its resources into account. We have consistently argued that a person has the right to a full assessment of their needs, regardless of whether a council is subsequently obliged meet them. We are grateful to the Supreme Court for clarifying this point."

Simon Foster, Head of Legal Services at Sense, a national charity for deafblind people, said: “We are delighted that the court has made it very clear that a local authority must assess disabled people in the first instance based on their needs, rather than what is available in the local authority’s budget. We believe in the principle that a person’s needs ought to be assessed in full, without regard to financial considerations. We are also pleased to see the court confirm that a local authority must give sufficient detail when providing direct payments so disabled people can see if the amount is enough to meet their needs.”

This is an important ruling for all disabled people, including deafblind people, because it provides for open and transparent decision making when it comes to the care and support people need to live their lives.”

Mark Lever, Chief Executive of The National Autistic Society, said: “The fact that Court recognised the assessment for social care should not be based on a ‘computer says so’ system is an important step forward. This sends a clear message to all local authorities that they have a duty of care to be transparent about how they assess and allocate funds to disabled people whether they live in Liverpool or Luton.

“The case highlights the complexity of the current social care system and the need for the Government to stop delaying in their reforms and put an end to the care crisis.”