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Turf war’s genesis


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Pierce Glynn and Stephen Knaffler QC have broadened the path (pun intended*) with SL and Westminster City Council (The Medical Foundation and Mind intervening) [2011] EWCA Civ 954. The case concerns a failed asylum seeker who, following a period as street homeless and a suicide attempt, was admitted to hospital for several months as a voluntary psychiatric patient. Westminster Social Services assessed that on discharge he would need various services including weekly meetings with his social worker, the support of a “befriender” and counselling services from gay support groups but that this did not amount to “care and attention” and so there was no duty to accommodate him under s.21 of the National Assistance Act 1949 (a statute described as by Laws LJ, with splendid self deprecation as ‘convoluted and somewhat difficult to unravel’).  The Court of Appeal has allowed his appeal finding that these assessed needs did amount to care and attention.

This is another round in what Laws LJ calls

“an extended debate as to the location of the boundary between the respective statutory responsibilities of local authorities and NASS to provide accommodation for destitute asylum seekers: a debate described by Baroness Hale at paragraph 28 of M v Slough BC as “an inverted and unseemly turf war between local and national government.””

Another round but I have no doubt that they will keep slugging away for some time yet.  The turf war goes back to 1998 (R v City of Westminster and others ex p M, P, A and X [Ex p. M (1998) 30 HLR 10]) and pre and post dates NASS.   I doubt that this case means the end of that war or even the beginning of the end.  Pressure on local authority budgets continues to squeeze and I suspect that running such cases is always seen as a win-win.  Either the authority’s case is accepted or it has grounds for demanding more from central government.

Two questions have been answered: what is meant by ‘care and attention’ and what by ‘not otherwise available’?   The first is fairly straightforward: support does not need to be particularly intense to constitute care and attention and nor is it limited to acts done by the local authority.

The second question is less clear. There was some hope by the Interveners that the boundary could be pushed for “the provision of accommodation as reasonably required in order for care to be furnished in a way that fully meets the claimant’s needs.” Laws LJ declined to apply that construction to the language of the statute to but did accept that local authorities must accommodate under section 21 unless it would be “reasonably practicable and efficacious” to supply the care services without giving housing.  On the facts, and in the absence of NASS support which thereby rendered the claimant destitute, the Court found that given Mr L’s mental health condition it would be “absurd to provide a programme of assistance and support through a care coordinator without also providing the obviously necessary basis of stable accommodation.”

Undoubtedly the link between mental health needs as a ‘necessary basis for stable accommodation’ without which ‘assistance and support’ are unlikely to be ‘reasonably practicable and efficacious’ is important and goes a long way to potentially recognizing the complex needs of vulnerable people.

Finally, it is worth mentioning a very good write up of the case over at Nearly Legal, the housing law blog.

* When reading lengthy judgments I always like to keep awake by looking for names for space ships for Iain M Banks’ sci-fi Culture series. Thanks to Laws LJ for this one.

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David Rhys Jones

David Rhys Jones is a policy advisor at the Helen Bamber Foundation. David has worked with refugees and asylum seekers for over 25 years. He has monitored the detention of torture survivors in the UK since the Detention Centre Rules were introduced in 2001. The Helen Bamber Foundation was founded in 2005 as a collective of human rights specialists who respond with compassion and creativity to the legacy of cruelty.