A high court ruling has delivered a blow to the self-advocacy movement, and the way in which user-led organisations are viewed by the legal system and local authorities.
People First Lambeth (PFL), which is run by people with learning difficulties, had sought a judicial review of the decision of Lambeth council not to renew annual contracts worth £118,000, funding which made up 94 per cent of PFL’s annual revenue, placing a huge question-mark over its survival.
Mr Justice Ouseley this week found that the council had breached its disability equality duty – under the old Disability Discrimination Act – by failing to pay due regard to the impact of the cuts on disabled people, when it made the decision to remove the funding early in 2011.
Although a council officer had carried out an assessment of the equality impact of the cuts, elected councillors had not examined that assessment themselves.
But because the council later took steps to re-examine the impact of their decision – after PFL launched its judicial review – the judge decided that the cuts to PFL’s funding were now lawful and could go ahead as planned.
The case was taken by disabled activist Gina Barrett, a director of PFL and a leading self-advocate.
She said she was “upset” by the court’s decision although she was glad that the judge had decided the council’s original actions had been unlawful.
She said: “I am glad I have stood up to them because I didn’t think I would have the guts to do it because no-one else with learning difficulties has taken a council to court themselves [over services run by people with learning difficulties].
“I showed them what they did was wrong. It was an organisation that I really loved and that is the most key thing.”
PFL’s lawyers had also challenged the council’s later consultation efforts, and used the new Equality Act to argue that removing the funding had made it impossible for PFL members to secure the support they needed to take part.
Although the council eventually appointed a part-time “user involvement worker”, that person was not employed or managed by PFL.
Louise Whitfield, a judicial review expert with Pierce Glynn solicitors, the firm representing Barrett, said the court had decided that, when deciding on the impact of a decision to cut services on disabled people, the identity of the provider of those services was a factor, but not a crucial one.
She said they had argued on behalf of PFL that whether the provider of the advocacy service was a user-led organisation was a “significant issue” in deciding if the council had breached its legal duty.
Whitfield said it was “helpful” that the judge had decided that the council’s original actions were unlawful, but she added: “What is unhelpful is that the judge did downplay the significance of a user-led organisation.”
Barrett and her lawyers are now considering whether to seek an appeal against the court’s decision.
Cllr Jim Dickson, Lambeth council’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, welcomed the ruling, and added: “We have been forced to make very difficult decisions across all areas of service delivery including adult services and social care.
“The government has forced severe budget cuts upon all local authorities, which resulted in the unprecedented reductions witnessed across all council budgets since February last year.”
1 March 2012