Councils spared on damages claims

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A landmark ruling in the House of Lords yesterday is likely to severely restrict the ability of people to claim damages from local councils over failures to provide social, consumer protection and environmental services.

The case centred on a claim by 56-year-old Peter O'Rourke, a homeless man whom the London Borough of Camden had placed in temporary hotel bed and breakfast accommodation in 1991. He was thrown out of the hotel after a series of complaints by residents about his behaviour and claimed he contracted tuberculosis as a result.

The Court of Appeal ruled that he was entitled to damages for breach of statutory duty - to house him under the 1985 Housing Act.

But Lord Hoffmann, with whom four other law lords agreed, ruled that no such right existed in law.

In a ruling indicating the reluctance of senior judges to make rulings that would add to public expenditure, Lord Hoffmann said: "The fact that Parliament has provided for the expenditure of public money on benefits in kind, such as housing the homeless, does not necessarily mean that it intended cash payments to be made by way of damages to persons who, in breach of the housing authorities' statutory duty, have unfortunately not received the benefits that they should have done."

Amanda Kelly, the council's deputy chief executive, said that people who felt they were badly treated by councils would still be able to get their cases heard by judicial review, adding: "As far as Mr O'Rourke is concerned we have always accepted that we had a duty to provide him with long-term accommodation, and we have since done so." But she said: "The ruling is a victory for local authorities and council-tax payers up and down the country.

"It means that local authorities can get on with providing services to the public rather than spending our scarce resources on fighting legal actions."

A ruling against the council would have opened the gates to a potential flood of litigation from people claiming to have suffered damage through councils failing to provide services or delaying providing them. Camden predicts that the decision will have wide-ranging implications for other services provided by local councils, particularly in the area of social services and environmental and consumer protection.

Quoting from an earlier judgment in a different case, Lord Hoffmann said: "Although regulatory or welfare legislation affecting a particular area of activity does in fact provide protection to ... individuals, ... the legislation is not to be treated as being passed for the benefit of those individuals but for the benefit of society in general."