Public Law

The English High Court as ruled that Surrey County Council breached its public sector equality duty by agreeing to introduce a plan to replace professional librarians with local volunteers, as part of its plans to replace existing library services with services to be delivered via community partnership models.

The judge, Mr. Justice Wilkie acknowledged that the Council was under “intense pressure” to reduce spending – it had to make £59.3m savings this financial year. Many local authorities are, of course, in a similar position and are examining how savings might be achieved through alternative models of service delivery. This judgment reinforces the message that equalities considerations must be at the heart of local authority decision making in relation to such matters.

The claimants were two local residents, who argued that the Council had failed to give due regard to the equality implications of the community partnership model as a consequence of which the Council had failed to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty that is laid down by s149 of the Equality Act 2010.

The claimants were concerned that the Council had failed to have proper regard to the “obvious equality issue of the need for training for volunteers, other than by means of broad and obvious statements of the need to provide ongoing support”. They led witnesses in support of their claims that volunteers would not be sensitive to the needs of elderly and disabled service users. The judge noted that the claimants were concerned “about the lack of continuity where a large number of volunteers are rostered to work in libraries in place of regular staff who know their regular customers and their requirements”.

The Court expressed the view that due regard to the “obvious” equality issue of volunteer training required, at the least, a “rigorous consideration” of the Council’s “thinking on that issue” and that “bland assertions” that training would be required and monitored fell “substantially short” of the due regard requirement.

Mr. Justice Wilkie acknowledged that “it is not necessary for a local authority to consider such issues to the nth degree of detail or ad infinitum, but a summary of what, it was now anticipated, the training needs would be and how they might be met was, in my judgment, an irreducible minimum to enable the cabinet to give this issue due regard at that stage.” and concluded that the decision was unlawful

The judge ruled that the Council’s decision was unlawful. However it will be May before he issues a view on what should happen next. At the end of the day, the outcome of this case may prove to be a short lived and pyrrhic victory for the claimants. The Council may prove to be determined to push ahead with the adoption of the community partnership model and it may yet do so by adopting an approach in which due regard is had to the Public Sector Equality Duty. However, the Council will have endured additional costs as a consequence of the outcome of the case, and it is also likely that the Council will have achieved less in the way of savings as a consequence of the delay in implementing its proposals.

Potentially, a more damaging legacy may be the risk of impoverished relations between the Council and affected sections of the local community. That would, in my view, be a pity as the Court acknowledged that awareness of equality issues was fully integrated into the Council’s corporate culture. This case serves as a reminder that Equality Impact Assessments are not tick box exercises and that they ought to involve a proper analysis of the issues. This is not the first case in which the Courts have made it clear that “due regard” requires an active consideration of the issues. Council and committee reports should therefore remind of elected members of the Public Sector Equality Duty and minutes should record that they have indeed given due regard to the issues.