Guest blog – using the law to challenge cuts – Mathieu Culverhouse, Irwin Mitchell solicitors

I’m very pleased to have a guest post on rightsinreality from Mathieu Culverhouse at Irwin Mitchell solicitors, one of the leading public law solicitors involved in challenges against cuts. I’ve written a number of times on the blog about the law that can be used to challenge cuts. I asked Mathieu to focus on a related issue – the practicalities of how to bring such cases to court. The questions were sourced on social media, with thanks to all those who responded. Over to Mathieu…

1.Parents who know their children’s rights can contest individual decisions at Tribunal, but what collective options are available to contest cuts?

Challenges to cuts are generally brought as applications for judicial review. Whilst ‘group actions’ are common in the US, and increasingly in the UK in relation to consumer and personal injury claims, for practical reasons they have not to date been used to bring legal challenges to cuts.

The main practical reason for this is that, with the availability of legal aid for individuals, and the advent of crowd funding (see further below), it is far simpler and easier for an individual, or a small number of individuals, to bring a cuts challenge.

However, collective action still plays an important part in bringing cuts challenges to court.  Having an organised campaign group from an early stage can be extremely helpful in identifying a suitable individual or individuals to act as claimants in an application for judicial review.  The campaign group can also assist in gathering witness evidence from others, in addition to the claimants, who are affected by the decision.  And of course, where a claim is being paid for through crowd funding, an active campaign group is vital for raising awareness and funds.

2. When is the right time to try to bring legal challenges to cuts?

The sooner the better.  A claim for judicial review must be brought promptly and not later than three months after the grounds for the claim first arose. The need for a claim to be brought ‘promptly’ can mean that where a case involves a challenge to a particularly significant decision (for example a challenge to a council’s budget), a court might still say that a claim has been left too late even if it is issued within three months.

It is therefore vital to start the process of seeking expert legal advice as soon as possible.  A solicitor will be able to help you identify the decision which needs to be challenged, the date of that decision, and whether there are good legal grounds to challenge it.

It may be that your solicitor will advise that it is too soon to bring a judicial review challenge (for example if a final decision on the issue has yet to be made), and that you need to wait before bringing a formal challenge. But this is a complex and technical area of law, and it is therefore crucial to get specialist advice from the outset, rather than risk missing the opportunity to bring a challenge by leaving it too late

3. What does being a ‘claimant’ in a cuts challenge actually involve?

The ‘claimant’ in a cuts challenge is the person who is bringing the claim, and will usually be someone who uses the service which is being cut.

In order to bring a challenge the claimant will need to instruct lawyers (often funded by legal aid – see below), who will then prepare the necessary paperwork for the court.

Where the service user is a child or an adult who does not have the mental capacity to instruct lawyers, a ‘litigation friend’ can instruct the lawyers on their behalf.  This could be a family member, a carer, a friend or any other suitable person. Legal aid can still often be obtained for the child or adult who actually uses the service.

Once the claimant has instructed lawyers, the lawyers will do the vast majority of the work involved in bringing the case to court.  Depending on the type of case, the lawyers might need the claimant to provide documents (such as letters, emails or care assessments), and the lawyers are also likely to want to take a statement from the claimant or the litigation friend.  Again, the work of taking a statement will be carried out by the lawyer.

Although the claimant will usually provide a written statement to the court, it is extremely unlikely that the claimant will be required to speak in court.  These kinds of cases are usually very dry, technical affairs, and all the talking in court is done by lawyers rather than witnesses.

This kind of case is nearly always held in public, which means that supporters of your case are able to attend the hearing.  This can often be helpful, to show the judge the strength of public feeling about the issue. However, if a large number of people are expected to attend, it will usually be a good idea to let the court know in advance so that they can make any necessary arrangements (e.g. holding the hearing in a big enough court room).

Some claimants might find that the idea of attending court is too much for them, or they may simply be unable to because of the nature of their disability.  Whilst it is always good to have the claimant in court for the hearing, it is equally fine if they are unable to attend, and the court will be sympathetic and understanding about this.

If a claimant is particularly vulnerable, for example in the case of a child or an adult who lacks the mental capacity to instruct lawyers, the court can be asked to make an order for anonymity, meaning that the claimant’s name will not appear in the published court papers and cannot be reported in the media. This request will usually be accepted although it is not guaranteed – but the issue of anonymity can be resolved before any public hearing so the claimant does not have to proceed if anonymity is refused.

4. Can you still get legal aid to challenge cuts?

Shout it from the rooftops – legal aid is still available to challenge cuts.  Many people are under the mistaken impression that legal aid has been abolished altogether, but that is not the case.  Although legal aid has been restricted (or removed altogether) for a number of areas of law, it is still available for ‘community care’ and ‘public law’ challenges, which in practice means that it is available to challenge cuts to public services.

Legal aid for these cases is means tested, but it is important to understand that where there is a potential court challenge, the means test is based on the service user’s means (whether that is a child or an adult) and not their parents’ or carers’ means.  The means test for legal aid is complicated, but in general terms people whose only income is from state benefits, or who are otherwise on a low income, and who have limited capital, will usually qualify. Specialist solicitors will be able to advise on the detailed requirements of the legal aid system.

 And, whilst in recent years the number of lawyers working in legal aid has reduced significantly, there remains a small but dedicated community of solicitors and barristers working in this field.  See here for a non-exhaustive list of specialist solicitors. 

5. How can you fund a cuts challenge if you can’t get legal aid?

In recent years more and more people have turned to crowd funding in order to bring legal challenges.  A number of online platforms have been set up to assist with this, the most popular of which is currently CrowdJustice.

By launching a crowd funding campaign, donations can be sought from the community affected by the decision under challenge, as well as from members of the general public who wish to support the cause.

If you cannot get legal aid, and you do not wish to pursue crowd funding, the options for funding a challenge are unfortunately limited.  Because of the particular rules which apply to judicial review cases, it is very rare for these cases to be run on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis.

One option is of course funding the challenge privately from your own resources, but challenges of this kind are very expensive and so this is unlikely to be a realistic option for most people.  Another option is to find lawyers who will agree to act ‘pro bono’ (ie free of charge). However even then the problem is that the usual costs rules apply to judicial review, so it is likely that an unsuccessful claimant will have to pay the public body’s legal costs. One of the key benefits of legal aid is that it comes with pretty effective ‘costs protection’ from the other side’s costs, meaning that usually legally aided claimants have to pay nothing towards the costs of the claim. A ‘protective costs order’ can be sought for non-legally aided claimants, limiting their exposure to costs, but the rules around these orders are complex and specialist advice will be needed.

6. What actually happens if you win a cuts judicial review? Do they have to reinstate the funding?

It is important to understand that in a claim for judicial review, the court will generally look at whether the way in which the decision was made was lawful or not.  If it is found to be unlawful, the court is likely to make an order ‘quashing’ the decision in question.  This means that the decision is effectively cancelled and the situation restored to that before the decision was made.  If the decision being challenged was one to cut funding, this of course means that the cut will not be implemented, at least for the time being.

Whilst it is open to the public authority to go away and try to make the same decision again but in a way that is lawful, in many cases public authorities which have been on the losing end of judicial reviews have chosen not to attempt to re-make the decision under challenge.  This could be either because the court’s criticism of their decision has been so strong as to make it difficult for them to make the same decision lawfully, or because they have simply taken a strategic decision to drop the proposal under challenge and look at other options for saving money.

A good example of this is the 2011 challenge to Birmingham City Council’s decision to cut £51m from its budget for adult social care and to raise its threshold for eligibility for adult care.  After the judicial review succeeded and the decision was quashed by the High Court, the council decided not to pursue the budget cuts or the policy change any further.

7. How can parents use the law to challenge an LA’s decision only to provide services in accordance with their statutory duties?

With increased pressure on local authority budgets, many councils have indicated that they will soon only have enough money to meet their basic statutory duties (i.e. the services the law says they have to provide), and will therefore be unable to provide any “non-statutory” services.

However, even when a service is non-statutory, it may still be possible to challenge a decision to cut it if the public authority has not made its decision lawfully.

A challenge may be brought on the basis that no, or inadequate, consultation was carried out before the decision was made, or that the decision maker failed to take into account the impact of the decision on people with a ‘protected characteristic’, such as disability, in breach of the Equality Act 2010.

This means that, despite the pressure on local authority resources, they can still be held to account for decisions to cut non-statutory services. There is also often potential for argument as to whether services are really non-statutory. For example short breaks for disabled children are now a ‘statutory’ service under the Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2011.

See also some of the key legal questions identified in one of Steve’s earlier blog posts.

 8. Where there is a ‘sufficiency duty’ in a particular area, how can families best gather evidence that a service (such as short breaks) is not in fact ‘sufficient’?

Much of the evidence in this kind of challenge will centre around what steps the local authority has taken to establish what the local need for the service is and to balance this need against the other demands on its resources.

However, families involved in such challenges can assist by recording in writing their own experiences of asking for, and being denied, the service in question.

For example, a family could keep a diary over the course of several months recording all the occasions on which they have asked for a short break and have been told that no space is available.  One such diary on its own may be enough to demonstrate the lack of sufficient provision, but of course the more families that are able to provide this kind of evidence, the more powerful it will be.

9. Are there any other key points you want to make about the practicalities of using the law to challenge cuts?

We are lucky to live in a country where the law allows individuals to hold public bodies to account through the courts.  But the law is only any use if it is enforced, and all too often public authorities are able to get away with making unlawful decisions without being challenged.

This is why it is vital that bad decisions made by public authorities are challenged.  If bad decisions go unchallenged, this will only encourage bad practice and breed more bad decisions.  It is only by holding public authorities to account that we can make sure that the rule of law is upheld and our rights protected.

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