R (Greenwich Community Law Centre) v Greenwich Borough Council [2012] EWCA Civ

Subjects: Public Sector Equality Duties – s 149 Equality Act 2010

Facts

A provided legal advice and assistance to vulnerable residents in Greenwich in the areas of immigration, welfare benefits, housing, employment and debt. It was supported by funding from several sources but mainly from R, who also provided rent-free accommodation. Until April 2011, it was part of a consortium known as Greenwich Legal Advice Services (GLAS). Following consultation on its ”Third Sector Commissioning Framework”, R invited bids for provision of services. By January 2011, the budget had to be reduced to £7m (a reduction of 30%) as a consequence of the Government's spending review. Following one bid from GLAS, the Council's Overview and Scrutiny Committee was asked to review the decision-making process. It recommended that an Equality Impact Assessment was carried out, which was completed in March 2011. Before a fresh round of tendering, a tendering document was produced which specified that 75% of services should be directed at priority groups, including people suffering from disabilities and long term illness. Greenwich CLC applied for 3 contracts but was not awarded a contract. The decision was further considered by the Cabinet in September 2011. Councillors were reminded that they would need to take account of the Council's equality duties. Following a further report on the geographical spread and accessibility of advice centres, the decision of the Council was reaffirmed in October 2011. A sought judicial review of the decision based on a contract which went to Plumstead CLC.

Held

A sought to appeal all of the lower court's conclusions, but was only given permission to appeal on the ground of whether there was proper compliance by the Council with its public sector equality duty. The Court of Appeal (Elias LJ) made some preliminary observations about A's challenge. Firstly, there was no complaint about the decision to award the contract to another CLC, nor about the tendering exercise; the complaint was that the final decisions made by Cabinet were made without compliance with the s 149 duty. Secondly, A did not raise any point about breach of the duty until they were informed by officers that the recommendation was for Plumstead CLC to be awarded the contract. Thirdly, there was no complaint that the Council failed to comply with the duty when it reduced the budget, nor that the Equality Impact Assessment was defective in any way.

The legal principles in this area are well established and in particular the court has to ask whether as a matter of substance there has been compliance. The courts must not micro-manage the exercise. On these facts, not only did the Council have proper regard to the implications of the decision on their priority groups, it structured its decision making policy so that those groups were the principal beneficiaries of funds. Given the full EIA in March and identification of equality implications at the time the policy was drafted, the actions of the officers in September/October did not require further detailed consideration of the continuing equality duties and the appeal was dismissed.

Comment

Authorities are generally given a margin of discretion and the Court of Appeal emphasised that they were not there to ”micro-manage” the exercise of complying with public sector equality duties. This was a model example of local authority decision-making which complied with the duty — not only was an Equality Impact Assessment undertaken but the findings were then filtered into the tendering policy. It is difficult to see how, in those circumstances, A could have been successful in their challenge.