Law Report: No damages for breach of public law duty: Regina v Northavon District Council, Ex parte Palmer - Queen's Bench Division (Mr Roger Toulson QC, Deputy High Court judge) 15 February 1994.

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A housing authority's breach of its duty under section 62 of the Housing Act 1985 to make inquiries on applications for accommodation in cases of homelessness or threatened homelessness does not give rise to any private law cause of action for damages.

Mr Roger Toulson QC dismissed the applicant's claim against council for damages in judicial review proceedings.

The applicant, 65, her husband, 75 and their mentally handicapped daughter, 26, had left their caravan to squat in property owned by Avon County Council. In January 1992 they applied to Northavon's housing department for accommodation, explaining they were squatters. They were told the housing waiting list was extremely long. They made three more applications for housing. In October 1992 they were evicted. They moved to a caravan on an unauthorised site. In April 1993 the council decided they were not homeless since Avon County Council had not obtained possession of the site on which the caravan was standing. In May 1993 Northavon accepted, on the basis that Avon had obtained a possession order, that the applicant was in priority need, not intentionally homeless and accepted a duty to provide accommodation and rehoused the applicant.

The applicant applied for judicial review, seeking a declaration that the council had been in breach of its statutory duty under section 62 of the Housing Act 1985 to make inquiries as to whether the applicant was intentionally homeless or threatened with homelessness and in priority need; alternatively that the council was in breach of its duty under sections 63 or 65 to secure accommodation; and claimed damages for breach of statutory duty.

Stephen Cottle (Bobbetts Mackan, Bristol) for the applicant; Timothy Straker (District Solicitor) for Northavon.

MR ROGER TOULSON QC, said that although Northavon might have believed Avon county council was tolerating the applicant's occupation, in January 1992 Northavon, if it had correctly directed itself, must have concluded that the applicant was applying for accommodation, that it had reason to be believe she might be homeless and that it had a duty to make the inquiries under section 62.

Inquiries by a local authority under section 62 were part of its decision- making and therefore public law functions. The proper conduct of those inquiries was a matter concerning not only the applicant. It affected the public purse and the general community and those people already on the housing list. The duties of a local authority under section 62 were duties in public law and did not afford any individual a cause of action in private law.

The alternative claim for damages for breach of statutory duty under sections 63 or 65 could only arise once a local authority had reached a decision, in the exercise of its public law functions, that the conditions necessary to give rise to a duty to secure accommodation under either section were satisfied. Once the existence of a duty to provide accommodation had been established, an action for damages for breach would lie. The council was not in breach of any private law duty to the applicant under section 63 and 65.