February 26th, 2013 by James Goudie KC

In R (Stirling) v Haringey LBC (2013) EWCA Civ 116 the Court of Appeal were concerned with a claim for Judicial Review of the Council’s Council Tax Reduction Scheme pursuant to Section 10 of the Local Government Finance Act 2012 and Regulations thereunder, replacing Council Tax Benefit.  The Council were required to, and did, publish a draft Scheme and consult upon it, against the background of a 10% reduction in the funding given by Central Government to local authorities for council tax support.  The challenge was as to the consultation process.

There were three grounds: (1) that consultees were not provided with sufficient information to enable them to appreciate that there were alternatives to the draft scheme;  (2) that the information provided in the Consultation Document, as to the shortfall that would have to be met by the Council, was not accurately and fairly presented; and (3) that the Council should have told consultees about the Transitional Grant Scheme (“TSG”), and asked them if they wished to make any, or any further, responses in the light of the availability of that Scheme.  The second ground was not pursued in the Court of Appeal.

Dismissing the first ground, Sullivan LJ said, at paragraph 15:

It is one thing to say that when options for change are presented in a consultation paper … they must be fairly presented, it is quite another to submit … that in order to be fair a consultation paper must present information about other options that have been rejected. What fairness requires depends on the circumstances of the particular case. In some statutory contexts a decision maker may be required, or may choose to consult as to which of a number of options should be adopted.

However, Sullivan LJ continued, in paragraph 16, alternatives to a preferred scheme do not in all cases have to be mentioned as having been rejected.  At paragraph 18, Sullivan LJ stated that, in the particular statutory context, fairness did not require the Council, in the consultation process, to mention other options which it had decided not to incorporate into its published draft Scheme.  Much less did fairness require that the Consultation Document contain an explanation as to why these options were not incorporated in the draft Scheme.  At paragraph 19, Sullivan LJ went on to say that, evenif the statutory scheme had been less prescriptive and more open-textured as to the subject matter of the consultation process, he would not have concluded that the Consultation Document’s failure to mention the other possible ways of meeting the shortfall in Central Government funding rendered the consultation process unfair. The existence of the three options relied upon by the Appellant – raising Council Tax, reducing other Council services or utilising some of the Council’s reserves – were all reasonably obvious ways of meeting a shortfall in Central Government funding, and the form of the Consultation Document did not prevent consultees from suggesting them as possibilities. This was not a case in which the failure to mention the three options in the Consultation Document might have had the consequence that the decision-maker would have failed to appreciate their existence. The full Council would have been well aware of these three ways of meeting a shortfall in Central Government funding.  

Dismissing the third ground, the Court of Appeal held that the change of circumstance constituted, in the public domain, by the TSG, though plainly relevant, was not a change of such significance that the Council was bound to draw attention to it, or to commence the consultation process afresh.

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