So, Doherty (FC) (Appellant) and others v Birmingham City Council (Respondent)  UK HL 57
Well, well, and once more for effect, well. This is a very interesting result indeed, although I use the word result in a non-definite kind of way.
The headline is simple enough, the case was remitted to the High Court for determination of the domestic judicial review issues raised as defence to possession. Court of Appeal overturned. The majority would also have made a declaration of incompatibility in regard to the Mobile Homes Act 1998, if the incompatibility had not already been removed by the passing of the Housing and Regeneration Act. Their Lordships declined to vary or amend Kay v Lambeth in the light of this appeal or the last minute submissions on McCann v UK.
Behind the headlines though, there is a hell of a lot of devil in the details. In particular, I think it is safe to say that there has been some movement on Kay v Lambeth, enough to make the situation not quite so bleak as it then appeared.
I’ll start with the majority and the judgments of Lords Hope and Walker, agreed by Lord Rodger
For those with attention spans of less than a year, the majority in Kay v Lambeth held to a formulation on Human Rights challenges to possession claims where the landlord’s right to recover possession is unqualified that was set out by Lord Hope in para 110 of Kay. To wit, the only situations in which it would be open to the Court to refrain from proceeding to summary judgment are:
(a) if a seriously arguable point is raised that the law which enables the court to make the possession order is incompatible with article 8, the county court in the exercise of its jurisdiction under the Human Rights Act 1998 should deal with the argument in one or other of two ways: (i) by giving effect to the law, so far as it is possible for it to do so under section 3, in a way that is compatible with article 8, or (ii) by adjourning the proceedings to enable the compatibility issue to be dealt with in the High Court; (b) if the defendant wishes to challenge the decision of a public authority to recover possession as an improper exercise of its powers at common law on the ground that it was a decision that no reasonable person would consider justifiable, he should be permitted to do this provided again that the point is seriously arguable: Wandsworth London Borough Council v Winder  AC 461.
These will be called gateway (a) and gateway (b) below. In Kay the majority view was clearly that gateway (b) would mean a challenge on the basis of domestic public law grounds, not broader Convention grounds. The minority in Kay considered that there may be exceptional cases where the particular personal circumstances of the occupier may give rise to an Art. 8 defence.
In his judgment, Lords Hope held that the facts of Doherty – a gipsy family faced with summary possession after a Notice to Quit from a site that they had occupied for many years – were distinct from those of Connors v UK, Kay and indeed McCann, although most similar to Connors.
Here too was a unqualified right to possession by the local authority, where the decision to exercise that right was unchallengable under s.6(1) HRA 1998 as it was acting to give effect to the provisions of statute – s.6(2)(b). (Both Jan Luba QC for Doherty and Philip Sales QC for the Secretary of State challenged this point and it was not uniformly accepted – see below).
This was not a common law possession issue, but, because of the specific exception of local authority caravan sites from the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and the Mobile Homes Act 1998, an exercise of a specific right to common law possession given by statutary enactment – such that common law rights are effectively permitted by statute. (Again, not uniformly accepted).
Given this, and the Dohertys’ position as gypsies, the Connors issue of gateway (a) incompatibility applies – unjustifiably discriminatory statute. Because s.6(2)(b) applied, there was no possibility for the Courts to interpret the statute in accordance with the HRA (s.3(1)), leaving a declaration of incompatibility as the gateway (a) resort. As a result of the passing of the Housing and Regeneration Act, which corrects the issue, a declaration is not neccessary.
But gateway (b) could also apply. In Kay, the defence on public law grounds was limited to whether the decision to claim possession was ‘one that no reasonable person would consider justifiable’. Lord Hope points to his own comment at para 114 of Kay that the grounds of challenge to a decision to bring a claim were whether it was ‘arbitrary, unreasonable or disproportionate’. So gateway (a) and (b) work together to address the incompatibility of lack of procedural safeguard. If the statutes can be effected by the court in accordance with article 8 under gateway (a), fine. if not then it is open to the defendant to argue that that court must be satisfied that, on the basis of the grounds the claimant gives for its decision to seek possession, the decision is not Wednesbury unreasonable [para 53] (What grounds given for the decision? – this is summary possession!)
On the facts of this case, gateway (b) might have give an effective defence to the appellant. Gateway (b) provides an effective procedural protection. But, at para 55. Lord Hope says:
I think that in this situation it would be unduly formalistic to confine the review strictly to traditional Wednesbury grounds. The considerations that can be brought into account in this case are wider. An examination of the question whether the respondent’s decision was reasonable, having regard to the aim which it was pursuing and to the length of time that the appellant and his family have resided on the site, would be appropriate. But the requisite scrutiny would not involve the judge substituting his own judgment for that of the local authority. In my opinion the test of reasonableness should be, as I said in para 110 of Kay, whether the decision to recover possession was one which no reasonable person would consider justifiable.
Lord Hope’s address to McCann, at paras 15-21, is solely in terms of the issue of incompatibility and ‘objective standards’ of an arguable case. There is no address to the issue of whether domestic judicial review grounds and a consideration or proportionality are commensurate, despite McCann‘s express view on this. But Lord Hope’s suggestion that judicial review grounds could address disproportionate decisions [para 52] and the hints at para 55 may indicate a broader set of grounds for public law defence to unqualified possession claims than just Wednesbury unreasonableness.
Lord Walker’s judgment broadly ends up at the same point. However, Lord Walker spends some time to point out that the statute/common law distinction was not at issue in Kay, in order to support the view that s.6(2)(b) applies in the present case – implementation of statute not common law is at issue. Accordingly, Lord Walker agrees on a declaration of incompatibility via gateway (a) and also that it is not now required.
On gateway (b) Lord Walker, who was in the minority in Kay, is not happy about the distinction between HRA grounds and ‘traditional public law grounds’ [paras 108 -110]. He remains unsure that s.6(2)(b) applies to what are common law possessions. In view of McCann, he is even more concerned about the separation of HRA and JR grounds [para 116]. In fact, the circumstances where a viable defence appears may not be as exceptional as he thought in Kay, in view of Local Authorities looking to avoid contested possession claims via ‘relinquishing notices’ as in McCann (Birmingham and others should rethink their policy).[para 121-122]. The Court’s consideration of any gateway (b) defence should be focussed on the Local Authorities’ decision making process.
Lord Rodger agrees with Lords Hope and Walker, with nothing further.
Lord Scott’s judgment suggests that traditional judicial review procedure should be amended to allow considerations of disputed fact [para 68] as a part of gateway (b), and also that the defendant’s personal circumstances might well be a factor to which the local authority should have regard in making the decision on a possession claim, and therefore open to an examination by the court of whether the decision was unreasonable and disproportionate.[para 70]
Lord Scott did not see the need for a declaration of incompatibility in the present case, Kay having removed any Art 8 incompatibility found in Connors [para 80]. There is also a spectacularly ill-humoured and, in my immensely humble opinion mistaken attack on McCann at paras 82 – 88.
Lord Mance agrees on remitting the case to the High Court for gateway (b) consideration, but does not agree on an (abortive) declaration of incompatibility. Although the possession claim was a statutory matter [ para 132], the availability of gateway (b) means that the statute is not incompatible with Art 8, although the statute may well have been incompatible per se. In any case, the challenge in Doherty was that if Art 8 was not available to him to rely on in one form or another, this was incompatible with convention rights. No incompatibility of specific statute was raised [para 154].
On gateway (b) Kay excluded convention grounds [para 136] but this case was not the same as Kay. In Kay, the challenge was to the local authority’s decision to enforce its undoubted right to possession. In Doherty, the challenge was to the validity of the decision to give a notice to quit, which is a pre-condition to any right to possession [para 157].
In Qazi, Connors, Kay and McCann situations, a Local Authority has discretion as to whether it undertakes the steps necessary to resume possession, or whether to bring proceedings. It arguably cannot be described as action ‘to give effect to’ or ‘enforce’ a statutory provision which may be considered incompatible with Convention rights. The Council is giving effect to its own evaluation of the position and in doing so is obliged to respect Convention values. Non-compliant decisions should therefore be challengeable under the Wandsworth LBC v Winder principle [para 158]
In the present case, the decision to bring possession proceedings could not be considered as ‘giving effect’ to statute, so s.6(2)(b) did not apply and would not hinder a challenge on Art 8 grounds to the validity of the notice to quit and thus a defence to the possession claim [para 159].
Kay is distinguishable on the basis that this case was a challenge to the validity of the notice to quit [para 160-161]. This case should be remitted to the High Court to consider an Art 8 challenge to the validity of the notice to quit – a challenge on Convention as well as conventional judicial review grounds. Thus any incompatibility with statute is removed [para 161]. Lord Mance regrets that it was not possible to vary Lord Hope’s ‘para 110’ (above) to enable Convention grounds for challenge.
And there we are. A majority which isn’t, as Lords Hope and Walker have significant differences in their views, with Lord Rodger agreeing with both. Judgments which suggest that the Kay formulation of judicial review grounds for defence have been extended, or not, or maybe should be taken with a bit more latitude than Kay apparently decided, but not so far as full Convention grounds, unless they should be considered.
I’ve no time for a properly considered, critical view, but at the very least, a defence on grounds of unreasonableness of the decision to bring proceedings on a summary possession claim has been acknowledged to be available, to supposedly address proportionality and that it is more likely to be raised and indeed justified than Kay apparently permitted.
A few quick points.
Their Lordships generally regretted that they hadn’t been constituted as a 7 strong panel, in the light of the late arrival of McCann. A 5 strong panel simply could not change the decision of the panel of 7 in Kay.
The gateway (b) defence only applies to summary possession proceedings brought by public bodies (now potentially including RSLs after Weaver).
The proportionality issue is seen as a matter of the decision brought by the landlord – so only applies to public landlords and their decisions – not to the decisions of the court.
Where statute provides specifically for a mandatory procedure, it is likely that a full challenge to compatibility is the only option – and extremely unlikely to be successful.
There is much else to digest, whether obiter or not part of the ratio decendi. I may well return to this shortly. For the moment, I going to start work on the public law defence for a summary possession case that has just dropped into my lap, and I’m grateful that Doherty at least gave some wriggle room on that.
Any CLP people care to contribute views?