A question of authority power

In legal terms the lessons of the recent Court of Appeal decision in Welton v North Cornwall District Council raise interesting points about the circumstances in which local authorities can be held responsible for the actions of their officers. But in terms of the accountability of local authorities for their officers' actions, the case sounds a warning that the excesses of some staff must be curbed. As North Cornwall found out, failure to do so could lead to a claim for substantial damages awards.

The case concerned the holiday accommodation business of Victoria and David Welton who converted a farmhouse in north Cornwall into a guest house which slept eight people.

The couple ran the business in summer 1990 but in October of that year they received an unsolicited and unannounced visit from an Environmental Health Officer for North Cornwall District Council.

He presented them with a list of 13 requirements – though they were never given to the Weltons in writing – which he wrongly claimed had to be met for the premises to comply with the law. These requirements involved major building work and alterations to the kitchens.

But faced with the threat of having their business shut down for not complying, the Weltons carried out the work.

They also instructed Mark Chanter, of Truro firm Frank & Caffin, to look into the matter. As a result the Weltons took the council to Truro County Court where they were awarded £39,522 damages by Judge Anthony Thompson QC on the grounds that they had been caused economic loss as a result of the negligence of the council officer who ordered them to carry out the work.

That decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal in July when Lords Justices Rose, Ward and Judge rejected the council's arguments that its officers should be seen as carrying out the police or quasi-police function and in those circumstances local authorities could ward off claims such as those by the Weltons.

Chanter said he always regarded the case as a "straightforward" though "very unusual one". His approach was that the private citizen had to be protected in circumstances such as those the Weltons faced and that the local authority had to bear the responsibility for the actions of its officers.

In dismissing the council's appeal, the Court of Appeal left no doubt that Chanter's opinion that the case was "straightforward", argued by Philip Mott QC with junior Christopher Kemp, was the right one.

Lord Justice Ward, in holding the council liable to compensate the Weltons for the cost of the unnecessary work carried out on the instructions of the council officer, said the officer who ordered the work had been acting outside his legal powers.

He said "fairness, reasonableness and justice" imposed a duty of care on the local authority in such circumstances.

The council has now lodged an application to appeal against the Court of Appeal ruling. The appeal judges refused leave.