Lords to rule on council duties

Local authority lawyers are anxiously awaiting a House of Lords decision that will decide how far cash-strapped councils need to go in providing social services to the community.

Gloucestershire County Council has appealed an earlier decision that it had breached The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 by withdrawing cleaning services to a disabled man of 79 because of a lack of financial resources.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the council's withdrawal of services solely on financial grounds was unlawful, although resources could be taken into account in assessing how statutory duty could best be satisfied.

"The House of Lords' decision is going to be critical," said solicitor and local government specialist Leonie Cowen.

Cowen, of Leonie Cowen & Associates, said that if Gloucestershire won the appeal it would make it significantly easier for all councils to reduce services and take into account their resources. The firm has produced a free booklet for councils outlining the options for providing community care.

At the moment local authorities are expected to carry out a sophisticated analysis of clients' statutory needs including determining which services are desirable but not actually required.

Cowen said the "needs versus desires" requirement of the legislation was proving to be a headache for local government legal departments. "As a lawyer how can you tell?" she said.

She said council solicitors were under added pressure to get it right because individuals were becoming more aware of their legal rights and increasingly taking councils to court or the ombudsman.

But even if the Gloucestershire decision does go in its favour, council legal departments face further social services-related problems.

An impending Government White Paper is expected to propose that councils should contract out their community care services through compulsory competitive tendering.