Lawyers Say Ground-breaking Judgment Will Force ALL Public Authorities To Improve How They Consult With Local People When Making Cuts and Changes To Services
Local Authorities across England will have to take greater steps to ensure they properly involve local people in their decision-making processes as the Supreme Court ruled today (29 October 2014) that a London council’s consultation on its proposed Council Tax scheme misleadingly implied that it had no alternative but to pass on cuts to its poorest residents.
The case is the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on issues relating to consultations and is expected to impact on all future public consultations, including everything from local councils considering cuts to service or care home closures, to large national consultations such as those carried out by Government on major projects such as High Speed 2.
Law firm Irwin Mitchell represented Michelle Moseley, a single mother of four, who challenged the consultation by Haringey Council as they sought to implement the new Council Tax rebate system last April which forced the poorest residents within Haringey to pay council tax for the first time.
Lawyers acting for Ms Moseley, who is unable to work for health reasons and has lived in Haringey all her life, had argued that the consultation was unlawful as it didn’t provide enough information for people to make an informed response to the proposed changes.
The Supreme Court has now unanimously agreed that the Council did not tell local people what all the options were, misleadingly implied that there were no possible alternatives, and gave no information about why they had decided to implement their system rather than spreading the burden more evenly across all residents. The consultation made it seem that the Council had no choice, which was incorrect, and was so unfair that the Court has declared it to be unlawful.
Last year the Government abolished the Council Tax Benefit system in favour of a local rebate scheme implemented by each council separately but with reduced funding. This left a shortfall which Haringey Council decided to meet by requiring all residents who previously paid nothing, except disabled people and pensioners, to pay approximately 20% of their council tax.
At the time of the original legal challenge to the changes in Haringey, expert lawyers at Irwin Mitchell said the ‘poorest were being hit hardest’ and that the council tax changes across the country were a postcode lottery which would see many vulnerable residents forced to pay council tax for the first time.
Following a Court of Appeal hearing in February last year, which ruled in the Council’s favour, Irwin Mitchell applied to the Supreme Court on behalf of residents of Haringey who believed the consultation was unfair. The challenge also had the support of the Reverend Paul Nicolson, a resident of Haringey who campaigns on behalf of Taxpayers Against Poverty.
Citizens Advice said earlier this year that in the first three months of 2014 the charity helped 27,000 people who had fallen behind with council tax bills, a 17% increase on the same period of 2013. They also revealed that more than 90,000 people came to Citizens Advice looking for help with council tax arrears last year.
Alex Rook, a specialist health and welfare lawyer at Irwin Mitchell leading the case, said:
Expert OpinionThis judgment will make a real difference in future to the way in which ordinary people in England and Wales are involved in decisions which affect their lives. Last year we warned that the council tax changes were going to hurt vulnerable residents who simply could not afford to pay under the new rules.
“Now today’s ruling will send a very clear message to all local authorities that they need to ensure that their consultations present the options in an accurate way and truly involve local people in the decision making process.
“Following today’s judgment local authorities and other public bodies should be in no doubt that they cannot hide away from the true reasoning behind their decisions, and will be required to give the public more information about the possible options and the reason why they favour their proposal. The case is a good example of where judicial review and legal aid have been used positively to hold local council’s to account.
“Our client and local campaigners like Reverend Nicolson to this day remain in the dark as to why Haringey decided to make its poorest residents meet this shortfall in funding, and the importance of this issue should not be underestimated at the present time when local services are being cut back across the country. The decision sends a very clear message about the importance of the democratic principles at the heart of our society.” Alex Rook - Partner
Haringey Council’s Consultation Charter states that the Council undertakes consultations “so that people who live and work in the borough have a say in the Council decision making process and know that their views have been taken into account.” Irwin Mitchell and Reverend Nicholson are now inviting Haringey Council to hold true to their charter, and having been told by the Supreme Court that they misled local residents, to agree to re-consult on their decision for next year when they need to renew the policy.
After the decision had been handed down, Ms Moseley said: “We are relieved to have won this court battle and prove that the consultation was unfair, but it is such a shame that it has had to come to this as the Council should have been looking out for people like me who are struggling and are in a vulnerable position. We didn’t know there were potential alternatives to the system they wanted to use, it was just presented as if we had no choice.
“Taking legal action was a last resort because the Council just weren’t listening to us and so many people have struggled with their bills in the past year. Hopefully now they will reconsider their position and make changes to the way they use the council tax rebate system.”
Alex Rook of Irwin Mitchell added:
Expert OpinionHaving been told that their previous consultation was unfair and misleadingly implied that there were no alternatives to the choice they made, we invite the Council to undertake a new consultation which provides residents with all the information they need to make a decision about these issues which will directly affect their wellbeing. We do not see how Haringey Council can hold true to the important ideals within the Consultation Charter without holding a new consultation having been told that this one went so badly wrong.” Alex Rook - Partner
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