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Judge's regret after law centre loses funding challenge

Greenwich council's decision had no 'reviewable flaw'

9 January 2012

Greenwich law centre has lost a legal challenge to the council’s decision to withdraw funding.

Dismissing the law centre’s judicial review, Mr Justice Cranston said he reached his conclusions with “considerable regret” and it would be a “sad day” if the centre was forced to shut.

The High Court heard that, following the government’s comprehensive spending review in October 2010, there had to be “significant reductions” in Greenwich council’s budget for grants.

The council decided on a cut of just under 30 per cent in funding to third sector organisations, comparable to the cut in its overall budget.

Giving judgment in R (on the application of Greenwich Community Law Centre) v Greenwich Council [2011] EWHC 3463(Admin), Cranston J said the council also decided that it should look again at funding in the advice and legal services area.

The council’s ‘overview and scrutiny committee’ was given the task of assessing bids from legal advice agencies and a tendering document was issued. A council ‘evaluation panel’ met to score the bids in August. Plumstead law centre scored higher points than Greenwich in all categories.

“The text accompanying the scoring referred to Greenwich CLC’s good track record but the bid document was poorly drafted, with the hallmarks of having been rushed,” Cranston J said.

A council cabinet meeting in September 2011 agreed that the law centre should lose its funding.

In November 2011 its workload was taken over by Plumstead law centre and Greenwich Housing Rights. Greenwich law centre won permission to apply for judicial review.

Cranston J said the centre argued that the council’s timetable for commissioning legal services was “irrational” and “failed to provide sufficient time for any transition in the event that existing funders were not successful”.

However, he said the background to the case led to the inevitable conclusion that, a as a matter of law, Greenwich got “nowhere near surmounting the high threshold of an irrationality challenge”.

Cranston J said the law centre “had more than six months’ notice that its existing funding relationship with the council would end on 30 September 2011. In the event it received funding for a further six weeks after that.”

The law centre also argued that the council was in breach of its equality duty under Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010.

Cranston J said it seemed to him that the council was attempting to “mitigate inequalities in what it thought was the most effective way against a background of a significant reduction in government expenditure.

“The council conducted an equalities impact assessment in March 2011 in advance of its decision not to award funding for legal advice services and instead to conduct a fresh commissioning round. The whole purpose of its funding legal advice services was to assist priority groups.”

Cranston J said that as a matter of law there was no need to conduct a formal equality impact assessment before every decision.

“It is with considerable regret that I reach the conclusions I do,” he said. “Greenwich CLC is a long-established law centre. Its work is well known to this court. In 2009 it was assessed by the council as costing the least per case of all the advice providers in the borough. If the law centre does close it will be a sad day, to say the least, for the staff and its clients.”

However, Mr Justice Cranston said that “as a matter of legal analysis”, he could detect no “reviewable flaw” in how the council had behaved.

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Legal Aid