Local authorities looking to cut services may find themselves being challenged in the courts, a lawyer has warned.
Fiscal pressures and the need for councils to retrench will mean more judicial reviews, according to Eversheds partner Mark Rhys-Jones.
“There is going to be an increase in challenge,” he said. “We are seeing an increase in challenge anyway because people are more prepared to stand up for what they perceive as their rights,” he said, partly encouraged by the introduction of regional judicial review courts.
Unions have already used judicial review successfully when authorities have failed to make a proper equality impact assessment of the cuts they are proposing and contractors have increasingly been resorting to the courts arguing that the proper procurement processes have not been used.
Staff members facing redundancy are also being encouraged to examine their options, with Solace recently offering members in statutory posts, such as monitoring and section 151 officers, specialist insurance which will cover the costs of a judicial review.
David Incoll, chief executive of South Hams DC and West Devon BC, said judicial reviews by residents and community groups could also become more common thanks to the previous government’s ‘Duty to Involve’.
A relatively new requirement, which came into effect last April, it requires councils to consider how they will inform and consult residents as a matter of course. Bristol City Council, for example, have recently launched a major consultation asking residents where they think services should be cut.
Mr Incoll said the duty was part of “a whole lot of legislation that was designed for better times”, but had become “a bit of a booby trap” in the current financial climate.
“People are expecting to have a say,” he said. “But I don’t think the money is enough to do everything they want.”
Mr Rhys-Jones agreed that the duty to involve had a potential to cause problems for local authorities. “You can’t imagine anyone being consulted and saying they are happy to have things cut,” he said. “Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.”
Even if legal challenges were ultimately unsuccessful, he added, they would create delay and expense for local authorities.
“All of this is going to impair local government: pressure on the one side to make cuts but then struggling to make those decisions and then to implement them,” he warned.