A Supreme Court judgment could make it easier for thousands more disabled people to access the care packages they need, legal experts have suggested.
The case of KM, a disabled person with high support needs, against Cambridgeshire County Council, had been described as potentially the most important social care court case in 15 years.
KM’s lawyers were asking the court to rule that the council’s adult social care policy was unlawful, and that the package he was offered did not meet his needs.
But although the seven Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously in the council’s favour, one of them – Baroness Hale – said she believed councils could not take their own financial resources into account when assessing the needs of disabled people.
Although she made it clear that her comments were not relevant to the court’s ruling, they have provided encouragement to disability organisations and campaigners.
Lord Wilson, who delivered the leading judgment, also made it clear that when support was provided through direct payments it was “crucial” that councils provided “a reasonable degree of detail” about the package so disabled people and their advisers could judge whether the sum was “too high, too low or about right”.
Four disability charities – Sense, RNIB, the National Autistic Society (NAS) and Guide Dogs – had “intervened” in KM’s case, and argued that disabled people like KM should be assessed in terms of the care they needed, rather than according to the council’s financial position.
Yogi Amin, a partner in the public law team at solicitors Irwin Mitchell, which was representing the four charities, said Baroness Hale’s comments could potentially see thousands of disabled people across the country secure access to the support they needed.
He said that every council in England and Wales could now have to reconsider how it assessed the needs of disabled people.
Disability Rights UK and NAS both said that the ruling showed the need for urgent reform of the social care system.
A DR UK spokesman said: “We urgently need a new act that will clearly set out entitlements for disabled and older people and duties on local authorities.”
He called on the government to introduce its planned draft social care bill “within the next month”, and to “follow this with an actual bill in this parliamentary year”.
Simon Foster, Sense’s head of legal services, said: “We are delighted that the court has made it very clear that a local authority must assess disabled people in the first instance based on their needs, rather than what is available in the local authority’s budget.
“We are also pleased to see the court confirm that a local authority must give sufficient detail when providing direct payments so disabled people can see if the amount is enough to meet their needs.”
The KM case could have had even greater significance, as the charities were seeking to overturn a ruling made in 1997 by the House of Lords – the predecessor of the Supreme Court.
The House of Lords ruled in 1997 that Gloucestershire County Council was able to take into account its financial resources when assessing a disabled person’s care needs, but the council won only by a majority of three Law Lords to two.
The Supreme Court ruled, though, that those issues were not relevant in this case, although Baroness Hale said she had taken the opportunity to “clarify the debate”.
31 May 2012