Bempoa v Southwark LBC [2002] EWHC 153 (Admin)

Housing – community care – inter-departmental communication – contempt

The local authority wished to evict the claimant who was in unlawful possession of one of their premises, but before the warrant for possession could be enforced, Ms B brought judicial review proceedings, claiming that the LA had failed to assess her needs (including in particular her need for accommodation) for the purposes of considering whether or not she was eligible for assistance under section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948.

The application was disposed of with the LA agreeing to conduct a s47 NHSCCA 1990 assessment of Ms B’s needs and to address her needs, if any, under s21 NAA 1948. The LA further agreed not to enforce any warrant for possession and to continue to provide s21 NAA residential accommodation to Ms B and her family, at least until the assessment had been completed. However, 6 days after the undertaking was granted, Ms B was evicted at the behest of the LA’s housing department. Despite a request from social services that Ms B be reinstated in the property, the housing department failed to do so.

The LA’s defence to the contempt proceedings, that the eviction was the result of an administrative oversight – the undertaking having been given principally by the social services department and not communicated to the housing department – was given short shrift by the judge (he described it as ‘legal illiteracy’). The undertaking was given on behalf of the LA, not its social services department, and was binding on the LA in all its emanations.

The judge lambasted the Council’s ‘grave systematic failures’.  Whilst it was for local authorities to choose how they organised their legal services, they must have in place procedures to ensure all those departments and officers who need to know are made immediately and properly aware of the existence, terms and effect of injunctions granted against or undertakings given to the court on behalf of the LA. The judge was satisfied that the LA’s breach, whilst neither malicious nor wilful, was the result of ‘something much worse and much more blameworthy’ than mere administrative oversight – ie a reckless and indifferent approach to the court’s orders. The refusal to reinstate Ms B was deplorable and inhumane.

The judge held back on imposing any financial penalty for the contempt, which would have been a penalty on local tax payers, deeming the ‘humiliation’ of the public delivery of the judgment to be sufficient punishment.

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