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By J
15/09/2009

Without exception

R (Joseph) v LB Newham [2008] EWHC 1637 (Admin)

Blanket policies are unlawful. A first year law undergraduate could tell you that. Any lawyer or public body which didn’t know that would deserve public humilliation, probably involving being slapped across the face with a fish. Even a cursory flick through a public law text book would give you ample support for this elementary proposition of public law.

It is, therefore, something of a surprise to see Stadlen J dealing with… a blanket policy.

Mr and Mrs Joseph are secure tenants of the London Borough of Newham. At some time in the distant past, he was overpaid certain monies (probably Housing Benefit) and, when the Council sought to recover the monies, Mr Joseph disputed their entitlement to repayment. Nothing further seems to have happened, in particular, the Council took no steps to actually recover the money. Other than this one dispute, Mr Joseph had “assiduously paid his current rent and [had] been a perfect… model payer of his rent” (at [4]).

However, when Mr Joseph applied for a transfer, the Council declined to allow the same to go ahead on the basis that he had not repaid the disputed overpayment. In particular, as the Council said by letter of August 3, 2007:

“… it is the policy of the Council not to make offers to applicants who owe property related debts…”

This, as his Lordship noted, appeared to be “… a blanket policy not to make any offer to an applicant who owed a property related debt…”

Mr Joseph therefore applied for permission to move for judicial review of the decision in August 2007 not to permit him to take part in a transfer.

His Lordship was rather surprised by the approach taken by the Council:

(a) it was remarkable that no steps had been taken to recover the debt, but that it had been left as a “Sword of Damocles” hanging over Mr Joseph’s head;

(b) the Council did not appear to be entirely clear about whether or not the debt was now statute barred;

(c) the Council took – for the first time and without any evidence – the point that Mr Joseph could have utilized the internal appeal process rather than seek to move for Judicial Review;

(d) this was a “lamentable state of affairs” and “very unfortunate, to say the least” (at [9]) in circumstnaces where the total debt was only £892;

(e) his Lordship expressed the hope that there could be “some kind of reconsideration of the matter at an appropriate level in the Council… so that this matter can be resolved one way or another…” (at [10])

and, in the circumstances, it was appropriate to grant permission to move for Judicial Review.

I am – as may be clear – outraged, amazed and disapointed that a public authority has a blanket policy and sincerely hope that this judgment reminds parties of the fact that such policies are unlawful. It’s a shame that Mr Joseph acted in person, since conduct like this deserves significant costs awards being made!

(with thanks to HHJ Madge and Jan Luba QC for alerting us to this case via their excellent “Housing Law” column in Legal Action)

J is a barrister. He considers housing law to be the single greatest kind of law known to humankind and finds it very odd that so few people share this view.

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