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Probably wrong but wholly academic

Raw, R (on the application of) v London Borough of Lambeth [2010] EWHC 507 (Admin)

This case is a vivid illustration of the difficulties of challenging a Local Authority’s apparent homelessness gatekeeping practices, or alternatively, if you are a Local Authority, a clear example of tactical defences to such a challenge.

The problem is that a claim for judicial review seeking to address, in part, the lawfulness of a policy, rests pretty much entirely on the impact of the policy on the individual claimant. Thus the astute Council settles the effect on the Claimant, leaving the broader policy issue as academic and pretty much impossible to pursue.

In this case, Mr Raw (incidentally a veteran of the Kay v Lambeth short-life housing battles and still in the same property despite an order for possession being made) had applied as homeless to Lambeth. Lambeth had referred him to Lettings First – a deposit scheme for private accommodation run by Lambeth, and it became clear that they were not going to proceed with making s.184 inquiries once the referral had been made. Once judicial review proceedings were underway, Lambeth restarted inquiries under s.184, eventually accepting the full duty, but removed Mr Raw from the Lettings First scheme until the decision that the full duty was owed was made. it then re-instated Mr Raw on the Lettings First scheme as well as allowing him to bid under Lambeth’s CBL scheme.

Mr Raw’s JR claim included a claim for a declaration that failing to make inquiries under s.184 was unlawful, and that a referral to Lettings First was not a basis to stop the s.184 process. By the time the matter came to hearing, then, this part of the claim was wholly academic (as was the rest).

Mr Raw sought to persuade the court that this was an iossue of broader public interest, given that at least 100 and probably more homeless applicants each year were referred to Lettings First and, as the conditions appeared to be standard, would have their homeless applications abandoned, or at least frozen. This looked like gatekeeping.

Mr Watkinson who appeared on behalf of the claimant invited me to exercise my discretion to entertain the application for a general declaration and to adjudicate upon it. In doing so he relied on two points. The first to which I refer in more detail below was that it is to be inferred that there are many other people in a similar position to that in which the claimant found himself before the Council agreed both to continue its inquiries and to allow him to participate in the rent deposit scheme, so that the court would have to determine the issue raised in this case sooner or later in another case if I declined to do so in this case.

Mr Watkinson’s second ground was that the operation of the Council’s policy, as he submitted, has the effect that claims for judicial review brought by people in the position of the claimant are always likely to result in offers being made by the Council similar to those made in this case before the claim gets to court with the result that unless the court is prepared to adjudicate on the legality of the Council’s policy in a case which no longer has any practical effect on the particular person who has brought a claim there will never be a mechanism for subjecting the alleged illegality of the Council’s policy to judicial scrutiny.

The Court considered R (on the application of Zoolife International Limited) v Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [2007] EWHC 2995 (Admin) on the issue of hearing academic cases. Silber J stated

In my view these statements show clearly that academic issues cannot and should not be determined by courts unless there are exceptional circumstances such as where two conditions are satisfied in the type of application now before the courts. The first condition is in the words of Lord Slynn in Salem (supra) that “a large number of similar cases exist or anticipated” or at least other similar cases exist or are anticipated and the second condition is that the decision in the academic case will not be fact-sensitive. If the courts entertained academic disputes in the type of application now before the court but which did not satisfy each of these two conditions, the consequences would be a regrettable waste of valuable court time and the incurring by one or more parties of unnecessary costs.

Here, although the claimant had sought evidence on the existence of other claims on this topic, there was not sufficient evidence that a large number of claims would be brought in the future, or had been settled in the past. And, while

In principle in a hypothetical case in which a claimant was able to identify an unlawful policy implemented by a local authority which could never be challenged by a person adversely affected by it because the nature of the illegality was so transient or short lived that it would always cease before it could be brought to court or where the local authority deliberately disapplied the policy so as to render all claims academic before the court could decide on them, I could imagine that there might be a good reason in the public interest for the court to entertain an academic claim for a declaration that the policy was unlawful.
this did not appear to be such a case.

Further

There was no evidence before the court of other cases in which the Council’s allegedly unlawful policy was initially applied but subsequently disapplied, let alone disapplied by the Council after proceedings for judicial review had been issued with the motive of preventing the court from adjudicating upon the legality or illegality of the alleged policy.

And, although Lambeth’s account of its Letting First scheme and referral policy left questions unanswered, there was some force in Lambeth’s argument that any individual challenge to it would be fact sensitive, depending on how the scheme affected that person.

The Court declined to adjudicate on the ‘academic’ declaration.

However, as a coda, Mr Justice Stadlen provided Lambeth with a homily on the immediate nature of the duty to make inquiries under s.184 (and provide interim accommodation under s.188) and offered his view that the apparent operation of the Letting First scheme gave rise to serious concern:

Thus if for example while waiting for a property to become available under the rent deposit scheme a person to whom the 7 January 2009 document or its equivalent was addressed was in a position where had the council continued its inquiries it would have had reason to believe that he might be homeless, eligible for assistance and have a priority need there is nothing in the document to tell him either that he may be forfeiting a right to interim accommodation which he might otherwise have had or alternatively that the council would consider itself bound to secure interim accommodation whether under section 188 or voluntarily.

and

it might well be that a blanket policy of ceasing inquiries in all cases where a Part VII applicant has been referred to the rent deposit scheme could be construed as such an avoidance of statutory obligation. In short the benefits of the rent deposit scheme, great though they may be, are not equivalent to and may not be an adequate substitute for at any rate the benefits to a Part VII applicant of the duty to provide interim accommodation under section 188, which benefits may in practice be diminished or undermined in the event of the Council not completing its section 184 inquiries.

But. of course, these are merely observations on what might have been the finding had the Court decided to hear the case on the facts and Lambeth’s Letting First scheme was not found to be unlawful.

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

7 Comments

  1. Marcin

    Any word on how the cost fell? If costs are to be borne by the council, they may find it cheaper to start complying with the law, or have their day in court to show that they are.

    Reply
    • NL

      Nothing in the judgment, but Mr Raw was legally aided even if costs went against him. My sense is that it was probably no order.

      Reply
  2. MP

    no order

    Reply
  3. NL

    Ta.

    Reply
  4. J

    I’ve been thinking this one over. On the one hand, this was a pretty blatent example of gatekeeping (and one that is common to a number of London boroughs; there is, I believe, at least one application for permission to appeal to the CA in a s.204 appeal that involves consideration of a scheme such as this) but, given the high probability of the authority just buying the case off by accepting the full duty, if you’re going to bring a case like this, surely you need to get two, three, four or more and issue them together (something that CLP are very accomplished at doing, see inter alia Awyes et al v BCC and Kelly et al v BCC.

    Reply
  5. David Thomas

    This was my case. The trouble with this sort of gatekeeping is that it will quite rarely come to a solicitor’s attention at the right stage for a challenge. Most people who are sidelined into a scheme of this sort will never realise what has happened to them. We asked Lambeth and Southwark housing lawyers’ email groups for their experiences, and a number of us were aware of the problem from odd cases, but no-one else had anything current. Mr Raw was unusual in being an old client of the firm with a built-in distrust for anything Lambeth said to him.

    I should say that David Watkinson and I regard this as a victory on points – there were some very useful dicta for use in any problem of this sort.

    Reply
    • NL

      David, I agree about the difficulties, which I highlighted in the post, but there is the practical question of evidencing a policy from one individual’s treatment, as well as the problem of the claim being picked off. Birmingham tried to blame individual officers’ decisions in Mehari & Kelly v BCC, and might have suceeded if there weren’t three claimants with identical treatment. Where there isn’t a policy in writing then going for it on a single claim is always going to be a steeply uphill battle.

      Reply

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