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West Berkshire Council disabled children cuts "unlawful", High Court rules

Councillors "misdirected" over decision to slash short-break funding

THE families of two severely disabled children have been successful in a judicial review into West Berkshire Council's decision to slash short-break funding which would have left their children socially isolated.

Today a High Court judge ruled that the council’s decision to cut the budget on March 1 was unlawful because members were essentially "misdirected" about their legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010.

The families of a 14-year-old boy and eight-year-old girl from Newbury took on West Berkshire Council over the cuts, which will see the budget for short breaks services provided by voluntary sector organisations slashed by almost 50 per cent.

The decision was made at a meeting of West Berkshire Council on March 1 this year and reaffirmed at another council meeting on May 31.

The High Court declared today (Friday, July 22) that West Berkshire Council did not properly consider its legal duties before deciding to make the cuts, and that the subsequent decision was merely to “rubber stamp” the first decision without being able to cure the original flaws.

The hearing took place on June 22 and 23 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London with the judge siding with the families, forcing the council to rethink its plans.

The court heard the council was in "an exceptionally difficult financial position" when it decided to cut its short breaks budget by up to £215,000 in March.

However, the presiding judge, Mrs Justice Laing, said the decision was also unlawful because members did not consider other relevant statutory duties before they decided to proceed with the cuts.

She said there was “no trace” of consideration by members of West Berkshire Council of any of these other legal duties, which are “mandatory relevant considerations”.

Mrs Justice Laing also ruled that the second decision the council took on May 31 to “re-affirm” the March 1 decision was legally flawed because “the way in which the issue was presented to members on May 31 gave a clear impression that they were expected to apply a rubber stamp to the decision of March 1, 2016, and a clear impression that they could not decide to rescind it”.

Both decisions have therefore today been quashed, which means that West Berkshire Council will have to take a new decision about funding for these services, and one that complies with all its legal duties.

Responding to the ruling West Berkshire Council’s executive member for Children’s Services, Lynne Doherty, said the decision to cut the funding was made after "prolonged and painful" consideration and that the council were committed to supporting vulnerable families with the resources available.

"This hearing wasn’t about the decision itself but about how the decision was made. In the coming days we will consider the implications of this and our next steps," she added.

“We will continue to meet our statutory duty to provide short break funding in the ways that the families we support prefer.

"It’s also our aim to provide discretionary short break funding to families. This provision remains important to us – as does all the support we provide to our most vulnerable residents."

For the latest on this story pick up a copy of next week's Newbury Weekly News.

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