Care cut unlawful but councils can tailor provision to resources Cash-strapped council's plan to to cut services was unlawful

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The Independent Online

Social Services Correspondent

A council's decision to withdraw community care services from disabled people because it had run out of money, without reassessing their needs, was yesterday ruled to be unlawful.

However, in a judgment that will be welcomed by councils across the country, the judges decided that local authorities are entitled to take into account the availability of resources when they decide what services they can afford to provide.

The landmark test case at the High Court in London was brought by six pensioners, fighting against the withdrawal or reduction of services. Five involved Gloucestershire County Council and one involved the London Borough of Islington.

The judges, Lord Justice McCowan and Mr Justice Waller, ruled that Gloucestershire had acted unlawfully, but that Islington did not breach its duty.

The outcome of the judicial review means that all councils that have unilaterally withdrawn services must reassess the users before reducing care services.

The result may involve councils in huge extra administrative costs. After the case, Deryk Mead, director of Gloucestershire's social services department, said that the cost of reassessing the 150,000 disabled people from whom it had planned to withdraw services would be about pounds 200,000. Nationally, the administrative cost of reassessing people may be as high as pounds 20m he said.

The case was brought by solicitors from the Public Law Project, a legal charity that aims to help disadvantaged groups. It followed Gloucestershire council's decision to withdraw services after an unexpected pounds 3m cut in its government grant.

In court, Richard Gordon QC, for the pensioners, asked for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal on the question of whether councils were entitled to take resources into account when assessing services, but the judges refused. The lawyers are to ask the Court of Appeal directly to hear the case. If it does not, they will decide then whether to challenge the reassessment decisions made by Gloucestershire.

Stephen Cragg, project solicitor, said: "We are disappointed that the court has held that councils can take resources into account at the assessment- of-needs stage. It is our case that a disabled person's needs remain the same, regardless of a council's financial position."

The judgment was greeted with mixed feelings by the council and by disabled- rights campaigners.

Councillor Andy Pennington, chairman of the social services committee, said it did not help to define what constitutes reasonable care and did not address the issue of lack of funding for community care for disabled people, the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

Derek Vizor, chairman of Voice of the People, who fought for legal aid for the "Gloucester five", said: "I'm very pleased with the general tenor of the judgment that Gloucestershire acted illegally. But I'm disappointed that there will still be an element of resources being taken into account when assessing people's needs. So councils will eventually have no idea of unmet needs and won't be able to argue for more money from the Government if they don't know how much they need.

"What will happen now is that the council will reassess people and inevitably decide it cannot afford to provide services for everyone, so I expect to be back in court before long."

Sally Greengross, director of Age Concern said: "This is a sad day for older disabled people who need help and support, because the judgment in effect means local authority assessments can be resource-, rather than needs-led".

The Chronically Sick and Disabled Person's Act (1970) placed a duty on local authorities to provide support services for disabled people. Ms Greengross said: "Now it appears that these services will only be available for people who are at `severe physical risk'.

"This judgment allows the Government, through local authorities, to ignore the community-care needs of older disabled people. A need is a need - it doesn't go away just because an agency says it doesn't have enough money to meet it".