Disability campaigners have welcomed a landmark court victory by four West Midlands residents over Birmingham City Council's attempt to cut their services.
Following a legal challenge, the High Court sitting in Birmingham ruled yesterday (20 April 2011) that the authority’s plans to cut its adult social care budget - which would take away key services currently being delivered - were unlawful in the way they had been decided in relation to the requirements of disability legislation.
The four people, who cannot be named for legal reasons, include an elderly woman with severe learning difficulties who receives 24-hour care in a home paid for by the council, and a 25-year-old man with a rare genetic disorder and severe learning disabilities who receives overnight respite care, also council-provided. Both would have been left without funded care.
Karen Ashton, from Public Law Solicitors, told the BBC after the verdict was announced that "the government needs to think again" over whether additional funding needs to go in to adult social care, and councils need to consider their duties very carefully to ensure that cuts do not fall on the most vulnerable. The duties involved are legal as well as moral, she said.
The case was brought by the families of four disabled adults from Birmingham who were told earlier this year by the City Council that as from 1 April 2011, any needs which were not considered ‘critical’ would no longer be paid for, leaving them concerned that many of their essential care and support needs would not be met. Previously the Council had provided services to meet 'critical' or 'substantial' needs.
The Council's actions would impact thousands of vulnerable people, and were described by disabled rights groups as "heartless" and "irresponsible", as well as illegal.
The judges ruled that the council business plan was unlawful because it failed to comply with Section 49a of the Disability Discrimination Act. The full Court judgement will be handed down during the second week of May 2011.
The successful application for a judicial review means that Birmingham City Council will now be forced to make a new decision - but the struggle is not over.
It is open to the Council to retake its decision and continue providing services for those with ‘critical’ and ‘substantial’ needs in the meantime. The council will need to find the funds within the budget already set to continue to fund the ‘substantial’ care needs of disabled and older people.
Mr Justice Walker declared Birmingham City Council’s budget unlawful in respect to adult social care. His interim judgement says that the Council now needs to review the setting of its adult social care budget.
Polly Sweeney, solicitor at the Birmingham office of Irwin Mitchell who acted on behalf of Ms A, a 65 year old lady with severe learning disabilities, said: “We are delighted with the Court’s decision and very relieved. These individuals and families rely heavily on this care and it would have represented a huge backward step if the funding was removed."
She added: “This case has national significance. Proposals to cut mandatory duties and tighten eligibility for social care are the major issues in the social care sector. This is about saving front line services for vulnerable and disabled people. It is a very significant outcome and with Birmingham City Council being the UK’s largest local authority, it’s very likely that the result will set a precedent for other cases. Other councils up and down the country seeking to target vulnerable groups through cost-cutting drives may be legally challenged.”
Birmingham City Council launched the consultation exercise as part of city-wide plans aimed at reducing the amount of money it spends on adult social care. The consultation ended on 2 March 2011 and the plans were approved by the Council at meetings on 1 and 14 March 2011.
It is thought that up to 5,000 disabled people in Birmingham would have been denied all or parts of their social care packages currently provided by the Council under the plans.
The case was fought on the grounds that the City Council’s proposals did not promote equality under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
It was also argued that the consultation process failed to meet legal requirements in a number of areas – particularly its lack of clarity in relation to which groups will be affected, and what the options for those people who will have their care package removed are.
The authority, a Conservative-Liberal coalition, says it needs to make the cuts to help slash £118 million from its adult and communities directorate, and to save £308 million from its budget overall.
Tony Rabaiotti, head of local government in the West Midlands for public sector union UNISON, has welcomed the ruling.
Mr Rabaiotti said: "This is a landmark ruling and a tremendous victory for thousands of vulnerable people across Birmingham who rely upon social care provision."
He continued: "Social care workers across Birmingham have been telling UNISON over the last few months that they are genuinely frightened by the proposal to so severely axe social care provision."
"They have been telling us that vulnerable people will simply be left to fend for themselves. The council now has the opportunity to pause, think again and work with us to maintain quality social care provision for the people of Birmingham," he concluded.
Birmingham City Council has lost another recent case involving cuts to the funding of voluntary organisations, also taken up by Public Law Solicitors.
* BBC online TV interview with Karen Ashton of PLS: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-13147675 
* Public Law Solicitors: http://www.publiclawsolicitors.co.uk/ 
* Irwin Mitchell: http://www.irwinmitchell.com/