October 30th, 2014 by James Goudie KC

The Supreme Court has on 29 October 2014 decided R (Moseley, in substitution of Stirling deceased) v Haringey LBC [2014] UKSC 56 on appeal from [2013] EWCA Civ 116.  The subject matter is the authority’s Council Tax Reduction Scheme (“CTRS”) and the Consultation Document (“the CD”) in relation to the draft CTRS.  The CD explained the reduction in Central Government funding and stated that this means that the introduction of a local CTRS in Haringey will “directly affect the assistance provided” to everyone below pensionable age who had been receiving Council Tax Benefit.  The CD also contained a Questionnaire asking how the reduction in relief should be distributed among claimants.  Following the consultation exercise the authority decided to adopt a CTRS under which the level of council tax relief was reduced for 2013-2014 by 19.8% from 2012-2013 level for all claimants other than pensioners and the disabled.

The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the claimant’s appeal.  They declared that the consultation exercise was unlawful.  However, they declined to order the authority to undertake a fresh consultation exercise. This would have been disproportionate in the circumstances.

The Supreme Court (paragraphs 25, 35 and 44) gave its endorsement to the four Gunning/Coughlan criteria of a fair consultation.

At paragraph 26 Lord Wilson added that two further general points emerge from the authorities: (1) the degree of specificity with which, in fairness, the public authority should conduct its consultation exercise may be influenced by the identity of those whom it is consulting; and (2) the demands of fairness are likely to be somewhat higher when an authority contemplates depriving someone of an existing benefit or advantage than when the claimant is a bare applicant for a future benefit.

The critical passages are at paragraphs 27/28 and 39-41:-

“27.       Sometimes, particularly when statute does not limit the subject of the requisite consultation to the preferred option, fairness will require that interested persons be consulted not only upon the preferred option but also upon arguable yet discarded alternative options. …

28.        But, even when the subject of the requisite consultation is limited to the preferred option, fairness may nevertheless require passing reference to be made to arguable yet discarded alternative options. …”

“39.       … Meaningful public participation in this particular decision-making process, in a context with which the general public cannot be expected to be familiar, requires that the consultees should be provided not only with information about the draft scheme, but also with an outline of the realistic alternatives, and an indication of the main reasons for the authority’s adoption of the draft scheme. …

40.        That is not to say that a duty to consult invariably requires the provision of information about options which have been rejected.  The matter may be made clear, one way or the other, by the terms of the relevant statutory provisions, … To the extent that the issue is left open by the relevant statutory provisions, the question will generally be whether, in the particular context, the provision of such information is necessary in order for the consultees to express meaningful views on the proposal. …

41.        Nor does a requirement to provide information about other options mean that there must be a detailed discussion of the alternatives or of the reasons for their rejection.  The consultation required in the present context is in respect of the draft scheme, not the rejected alternatives; and it is important, not least in the context of a public consultation exercise, that the consultation documents should be clear and understandable, and therefore should not be unduly complex or lengthy.  Never-theless, enough must be said about realistic alternatives, and the reasons for the local authority’s preferred choice, to enable the consultees to make an intelligent response in respect of the scheme on which their views are sought.”

Applying the law to the facts, the Supreme Court held that fairness demanded that the Consultation Document should briefly refer to alternative methods of absorbing the shortfall in government funding and to the reasons why the authority had concluded that they were unacceptable.  The consultation was premised on the assumption that the shortfall would be met by a reduction in council tax relief.  No other option was presented.  Neither was it reasonably obvious to those consulted what other options there may have been and the reasons why such options had been discarded.  Indeed, only an infinitesimal number of responses to the consultation alluded to other ways of meeting the shortfall.  Therefore, the consultation exercise was unfair and unlawful.  (However, it was not unlawful that the authority had failed to consult on the possible adoption of a Transitional Grant Scheme announced by Central Government only 5 weeks before the completion of the Consultation.

The purpose of this particular statutory duty was to ensure public participation in the local authority’s decision-making process.  Meaningful participation in these circumstances required that those consulted be provided with an outline of the realistic alternatives.  In the absence of specific statutory provision, reference to alternative options will be required where this is necessary in order for the consultees to express meaningful views on the proposals.

In summary, the Consultation Document presented the proposed reduction in council tax support as if it were the inevitable consequence of the Government’s funding cuts, and thereby disguised the choice made by the authority itself. It misleadingly implied that there were no possible alternatives to that choice.  In reality, therefore, there was no consultation on the fundamental basis of the CTRS.

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