Disability charities have warned local authorities against excessive cuts to care services after a high court judge ruled that one council had acted unlawfully in restricting eligibility criteria.
Mrs Justice Lang said on Friday that plans by Isle of Wight council to cut its adult social care budget – so that assistance would go only to people deemed at critical risk – should be quashed. The council said it would abide by the decision and would not appeal.
Previously, the council had allocated care assistance to adults assessed to be at critical or substantial risk, the top two levels of a four-tier system. But in February the authority, facing a £33m funding gap after central government cuts, voted to restrict this to those at critical risk. The council argued that the high percentage of retired people on the Isle of Wight made it particularly vulnerable to social care costs. It had hoped to save a combined £2.5m by changing the eligibility criteria and increasing the fees paid by some recipients.
However, the change was challenged by lawyers representing two severely disabled men, named as JM and NT, both of whom have autism and various degrees of learning disabilities and require care.
The judge said the Conservative-run council had not complied with its own internal guidance in drawing up the new policy, and a consultation document did not contain sufficient information for people “to give intelligent consideration and an intelligent response”.
Alex Rook, the lawyer who represented JM and NT, said: “This landmark victory sends out a very clear message to all councils in England and Wales. If a council seeks to make cuts to its budget for adult social care, it cannot do so by only meeting certain needs designed to keep someone safe, but neglecting their overall quality of life.”
It is the latest in a string of court decisions striking down such cuts. In May, another high court judge decided that Birmingham city council had acted unlawfully in similarly restricting care to those deemed at critical risk. On Wednesday, a judge told Sefton council on Merseyside to reconsider plans to freeze fees paid to private care homes for elderly residents for the second year running.
The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, a professional body, said that apart from the Isle of Wight and Birmingham, it knew of four other councils that had set their criteria at critical-only – Kirklees, Northumberland, West Berkshire and Wokingham.
In a statement, Isle of Wight council said it was obliged to make immediate budget cuts while also trying to “position ourselves to face the demographic and financial challenges that the coming years will bring”, and that it regretted the court ruling. But it added: “We will immediately comply with the judge’s ruling and return to the previous eligibility threshold whilst we consider our next steps. We will not be appealing the decision.”
Campaigners said up to 2,000 people could have been affected by the change, but the ruling found that just 32 had experienced reduced or withdrawn services.
Disability charities said the decision was a warning to other local authorities.
David Congdon, at Mencap, said: “Individuals with a learning disability need social care packages to live their lives, yet many local authorities are cutting vital support, such as day centre allocation and short breaks provision for carers, which have a huge and detrimental impact on many of the individuals and families that we work with.
“All of this is being done in the name of cost-saving, yet tightening eligibility criteria in this way is a false economy, as those who do not receive the support that they need may well find their needs increasing to ‘substantial’ and ‘critical’.”
Neil Coyle, of Disability Alliance, said: “This ruling sends a clear message to all councils that, whatever government cuts you face, please ensure that changes you make to services for disabled people are lawful. Councils should be wary of cutting too far and leaving disabled and older people without essential and basic support.”
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