Another case on post-Doherty public law defences was handed down on Friday. Stokes v London Borough of Brent  EWHC 1426 (QB) concerned an appeal summary possession order made against a traveller in unlicenced occupation of a plot on a Brent traveller’s site.
Ms Stokes had lived at her mother’s plot on the site and had been on the waiting list. She moved onto a plot which contained a site office on part of it, but was not used as a caravan site, in about January 2007. In April 2007 Brent wrote to say that her trespass would not be tolerated. However, in October 2007, Brent wrote to say that she was trespassing, but in view of the birth of her fourth child, her occupation would be tolerated for 3 months. In April 2008, Brent wrote that her occupation was no longer tolerated and possession would be required in 3 weeks. A couple of weeks later in May 2008 possession proceedings were issued. Ms Stokes filed a public law defence, and an Article 8 defence. The court below found there was no defence with a seriously arguable prospect of success and made a summary possession order.
Ms Stokes appealed, arguing that:
The Judge had failed to take into account personal circumstances:
- That she had lived on the site almost all her life;
- She had nowhere else to station the caravan lawfully and were homeless for the purposes of Housing Act 1996;
- Brent had not offered suitable alternative accommodation;
- An offer of another pitch was unsuitable due to dispute between two groups of residents (although Brent had not been informed of this reason for refusal prior to beginning proceedings);
- Ms Stokes’ children had disabilities which had not been addressed by Brent;
- The occupation had not caused a nuisance to others;
- The decision to seek possession was solely on Brent’s desire to expand the office space, rather than accommodate others, but no good reason had been made for expanding the office space.
Also, Brent had failed to
- Take all reasonable steps to search for an alternative site;
- Search for other temporary sites;
- Have regard to the guidance in Circular 18/94.
The judge below had failed to give adequate reasons for dismissing the defence.
In addition, Ms Stokes argued Article 8.
The appeal was made before the House of Lords judgment in Doherty was handed down and was amended as a result. After hearing but before judgment, Doran v Liverpool was handed down by the Court of Appeal. So the judgment was in some ways a moving target.
Mr Justice King held:
1. The decision that must be considered is the decision of the authority to seek possession on the basis of the facts available to it at that time, not that have subsequently emerged.
2. This is a public law issue. Doherty makes no difference to Kay or Qazi on the availability of a human rights defence (unless ‘gateway A’ incompatibility).
3.The issue is whether a public law defence is ‘seriously arguable’, not just arguable.
4. Even taking the expanded sense of what can be raised in a public law defence, via Doherty (and Doran), this was not a (Kay) exceptional case. Unlike Connors or Kay, Ms Stokes had not lawfully lived on the pitch for a number of years. Eviction was sought after another pitch had been offered but refused, with no reason given at the time. It would be bad law to decide that the eviction would only be erited if it ws to accommodate another family.
5. The duty to offer suitable alternative accommodation was aHousing Act 1996 Part VII issue and not relevant to the present proceedings. Submissions on this issue sounded in part like a premature challenge to a homeless decision. R(McCarthy) v Basildon DC  EWHC 987 (Admin) distinguished on the basis of factual differences. There was nothing to suggest that Brent was not fully aware when it wrote the letter ending the ‘tolerated’ occupation that a homeless application might be made. The letter advised on making such an application. [In any event, R(McCarthy) was overturned on appeal.]
6. While the judgment below was cursory in parts, the judge had correctly addressed himself as to the ‘seriously arguable’ point and clearly had in mind all the pleaded circumstances in finding that there was no evidence to suggest a prima facie case that the Authority had failed in its duties. Additionally, the appellant had failed to establish that the court below was wrong on the seriously arguable point.
7. The argument that the Authority had failed to fulfill its statutory duty by taking into account relevant considerations fell in the same way. There had to be some evidence that the Authority had not complied with the duties, or relevant considerations ignored. Otherwise, it was simply an attempt to reverse the burden of proof onto the Claimant. A seriously arguable case cannot be made out simply by assertion of potentially material failures.
8. The appellant’s related point on procedural unfairness by failing to give directions on disclosure – where disclosure would have been ordered in a judicial review – did not stand. This was not, unlike the subject of a judicial review, a decision for which the decision maker was obliged to give reasons. The Judicial Review Protocol is not supposed to be method of pre-action fact finding or obligatory disclosure. There is no requirement to give reasons in a possession claim, and, even in a judicial review, it would be for the applicant to demonstrate the improper exercise of powers by the authority. There may be exceptional cases where the failure to give reasons may give rise to the inference of the improper use of powers, e.g. where the circumstances are such that the decision appears to be one that no reasonable person would consider justifiable. This was not such a case.
As well as the view on Doherty, which is broadly in line with the limiting decisions in Doran, Central Bedfordshire v Taylor and McGlynn v Hatfield, and also follows the suggestion that period of occupation is the key ‘personal circumstance’, there is an important issue here on evidence of failure to take into account relevant considerations. At such an early stage in possession proceedings, this can, of course, be very hard to evidence. Often, all there is a lack of any indication that the matters have been considered. What this judgment suggests is that this may well not be enough. But the Court asking for positive evidence of the failure, while restricting or denying any access to disclosure orders, puts the Defendant in a very difficult position indeed. (That is unless she or he has been lucky enough to receive a letter from the authority stating ‘we have wilfully and without good reason failed to consider X’, which is, on the whole, rare).