When are a Local Authority’s resources relevant to carrying out a statutory duty?

by Kerryn Woollett, Senior Solicitor

Rex (Imam) v Croydon London Borough Council [2023] UKSC 45

The Appellant was a full-time wheelchair user. Since September 2014, Croydon London Borough Council provided her with temporary accommodation under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996. The accommodation consisted of a two-storey property with a through floor lift. The Appellant’s bedroom was on the top floor while the bathroom was on the bottom floor. Should the need arise during the night, it would not have been easy for the Appellant to use the bathroom. The Council, therefore, accepted that the property was not suitable accommodation, having regard to her disability and that it was in breach of s.193(2) of the Housing Act 1996 by not offering her suitable alternative accommodation.

In 2020, the Appellant brought a claim for judicial review seeking, amongst other things, a mandatory order compelling the Council to secure her suitable accommodation under Part 7.

The judge in the Administrative Court dismissed the claim, refusing to make a mandatory order.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal set aside the judge’s order dismissing her claim for a mandatory order.

The Supreme Court considered the circumstances in which the Administrative Court could refuse to make a mandatory order compelling a public authority to act in compliance with a statutory duty and the extent to which the limits of a public authority’s resources are relevant to whether a mandatory order should be made.

The Supreme Court’s decision is of great importance, not only to housing law, but to public law generally.

Lord Sales gave the only judgment and started with the general proposition that resources were irrelevant to compliance with a statutory duty, however, Lord Sales then set out matters that might militate against the granting of a mandatory order.

The ordinary position, if one is successful in establishing their claim, is that relief should be granted. However, it is well established in public law proceedings that remedies are discretionary, that is, simply establishing a claim does not automatically lead to a conclusion that an order should be made, or relief granted. In fact, no order should be made if it isn’t reasonably possible to comply with it.

The court should not refuse relief routinely and should “proceed cautiously” when it was considering whether to do so. In particular, the court was required to bear in mind that Parliament imposed the duty on the authority and that the effect of the court making a mandatory order was to transpose this role onto the court rather than the authority, with the court then effectively supervising the authority’s compliance with what it termed a “super added duty”.

Another matter, which might militate against making an order, was the risk of detriment to good administration, for example, cases in which decisions were made or actions were taken on reliance of matters being finalised, only for the court to then upset the balance previously achieved, by granting relief. If is for this reason that judicial review claims must be brought within limited time frames, so that public authorities are not frozen through the passage of time by the risk of litigation.

Another matter that might militate against the grant of any order was the hardship or prejudice that might be caused to third parties, that is, the litigious should not be able to jump the queue above those whose claims might be more meritorious.

And finally, on resources, the court found that impossibilities does not mean literal impossibility but it does require the authority to show that it has taken all reasonable steps to comply with the duty. What all reasonable steps might be must be looked at in the context of the authority’s existing plans for the allocation of its resources which should not be disrupted.

Where a breach of duty is found or admitted, it is for the authority to explain why no order should be made by providing detailed evidence. It is not for the applicant to show why an order should be made.

When defending an Imam claim there are five comments authorities are expected to address:

  1. Does it have a contingency fund and if it does, has it considered employing it to assist the relevant applicant;
  2. Has there been a history of non-compliance with the duty;
  3. Are the applicant’s circumstance particularly dire;
  4. To what extend has the authority complied with the requirement to take all reasonable steps – the better its attempts the less likely an order will be made; and
  5. Caution should be paid to promoting the litigious above those whose claims are more meritorious.

If local authority can’t perform a statutory duty the Supreme Court was quite clear that it does not have to divert resources from other service areas or borrow more in order to comply with the duty. Generally, the courts won’t look behind budget decisions that have already been taken as the courts recognise that they lack the democratic authority and institutional competence to do so. That means a local authority isn’t required to reallocate funds from other service areas or from other budget heads once its annual budget has been set. However, the Supreme Court was quite clear that local authorities should have regard to using contingency funds. If a local authority has some form of contingency within its budget either within the service or for the full council, the court may expect it to dip into that contingency to provide a property (or in the wider context, comply with a statutory duty).

Where a local authority has failed to provide a suitable property (or comply with another statutory duty) for a considerable period, the court may enquire as to why the budget has not been updated to consider/include this case.