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COURT BACKS COUNCILS OVER STUDENT'S DISCRETIONARY GRANTS

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court ref nos: CO/3576/96 & CO/3577/96 ...
court ref nos: CO/3576/96 & CO/3577/96

Two students refused grant aid by their county councils to study for a career in the law have suffered defeat in their high court bids to have the decisions overturned.

Pawan Sharma, of High Wycombe, Bucks, and Lakhbir Kaur, of Swindon, Wilts, had challenged decisions of Buckinghamshire and Wiltshire CCs to turn down their applications for discretionary grants because of tight budgetary constraints.

The two cases had been heard together by the high court as they raised identical legal points of general importance to local education authorities.

Lawyers for the two claimed the county councils fell into legal error in failing to properly define the 'exceptional circumstances' that could justify the award of a discretionary grant.

But yesterday Mr Justice Scott Baker dismissed their case, concluding: 'There is nothing unlawful about what occurred in either of these cases'.

The judge added: 'I am satisfied that both (councils) operate a policy that is designed to ensure that those applicants who can show exceptional circumstances have their cases considered with the greatest care.'

The court heard Pawan Sharma had obtained a degree in law and accounting at Kingston University, but wished to study for a further year at the College of Law in Guildford, an essential step towards qualifying as a solicitor.

Both his parents had retired and their joint income was such that they were unable to assist him, said the judge. In spring 1996 he applied to Buckinghamshire CC for a discretionary award to pursue the course.

In July 1996 his application was turned down on the basis that he had already received public funding for a degree course and there were no 'exceptional circumstances' in his case to justify a discretionary grant award.

The court heard Ms Lakhbir Kaur had initially obtained a law degree at the private Buckingham University and her parents had contributed£28,000 towards her fees.

In February 1996 Ms Kaur applied to Wiltshire CC for a discretionary award to cover the Legal Practice Course at the University of the West of England, but her claim was turned down in April 1996.

Ms Kaur subsequently appealed Wiltshire CC's decision, but her application was again rejected in September 1996 as 'there were no exceptional circumstances to justify a departure from the authority's normal practice not to approve grant aid for post-graduate legal studies'.

Ms Kaur and Mr Sharma had sought judicial review of both councils' decisions.

But Mr Justice Scott Baker said that both councils had 'an established and lawful policy setting out the circumstances in which they will not, generally, make discretionary awards'.

They had properly left open the possibility of making awards where 'exceptional circumstances' existed, he added. Neither county council could be blamed for any failure to define what those circumstances were and it was clear that both cases had been considered 'with the greatest care'.

Both councils had had to make hard decisions against a background of 'inadequate resources' and a large number of applications for discretionary grants, said the judge.

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