Decision Set To Open The Door To Similar Cases Across The UK
FOUR disabled residents from the West Midlands have won a landmark legal challenge against Birmingham City Council following a High Court ruling today (19 May 2011) which stated that the local authority’s plans to cut its adult social care budget were unlawful.
The case was brought by the families of four disabled adults from Birmingham who were told earlier this year by the Council that from 1 April 2011, any needs which were not considered ‘critical’ would no longer be paid for, leaving them concerned that many of their essential care and support needs would be unmet.
Handing down his full judgement today at the Royal Courts of Justice, Mr Justice Walker declared that both Birmingham City Council’s budget setting and decision to change its eligibility policy, were unlawful on the grounds that they did not promote equality under Section 49A of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995and their attempts at consultation were flawed.
Assessing whether the Council had complied with its legal duties here, Mr Justice Walker explained: “The consultation had not involved any attempt to look at the practical detail of what the move to ‘critical only’ would entail.”
He added: “There was no analysis of how and to what extent any mitigation measures would be effective in addressing adverse impacts. In particular, there was no consideration of the extent to which alternative resources in the community would be available for those with substantial needs, and no other steps to mitigate the impact on disabled people were identified.”
It was also held that the Council’s consultation process failed to meet legal requirements in a number of areas – particularly its lack of clarity in relation to which groups will be affected, and what the options for those people who will have their care package removed are.
Mr Justice Walker said that: “Failure to comply with section 49A inevitably carries with it a conclusion that the consultation was inadequate. Just as the decision making process failed to address the right questions, the same is true of the consultation process.”
He added: “In my view there remained considerable scope for confusion on the part of those to whom the consultation had been addressed.”
Polly Sweeney, Solicitor at the Birmingham office of Irwin Mitchell who acted on behalf of one of the claimants, a 65 year old lady with severe learning disabilities, said:
“The judge described the move to a critical-only policy as ‘potentially devastating’ and found that, both when setting its budget and changing its eligibility policy, the Council had failed to give proper consideration to the impact on disabled people, and failed to undertake adequate consultation on its proposals.”
Ms Sweeney added: “This is a hugely important victory not just for the four individuals involved in this case, but also for the thousands of other people affected across Birmingham. These people and their families rely heavily on this care and it would have represented a huge backward step if the funding was removed.
“This case has national significance too. Birmingham City Council is the UK’s largest local authority and it’s very likely that this outcome will set a precedent for other cases in other parts of the UK where Councils may be targeting vulnerable groups through cost-cutting drives.”
Birmingham City Council launched the consultation exercise into its eligibility policy as part of city-wide plans aimed at reducing the amount of money it spends on adult social care. In the first year alone, the Council aims to realise immediate savings of £51m. The consultation ended on 2 March 2011 and the plans were approved by the Council at two separate meetings on 1 and 14 March 2011.
It was thought that up to 5,000 disabled people in Birmingham would have been denied all or parts of their front line social care packages currently provided by the Council under the plans.
The successful application for a judicial review means Birmingham City Council will be forced to make a new decision. It is open to the Council now to retake its decision and continue providing services for those with ‘critical’ and ‘substantial’ needs in the meantime. The council will need to find the funds within their budget to continue to fund for the ‘substantial’ care needs of disabled and older people.