The following letter from our Chairman, Rev Paul Nicolson, was published by the Guardian this morning.
The abolition of legal aid for social cases will leave the poorest citizens at the mercy of the wide discretion of thousands of jobcentre and local authority officials making decisions about welfare eligibility, sanctions, civil penalties and the enforcement of overpayments. They now have similar powers to magistrates imposing fines and enforcing council tax. It is thus vital that they get their decisions right, otherwise the consequent debts, enforced against the poverty incomes of welfare claimants, will cause misery, ill health and homelessness.
Checking whether officials know the Wednesbury principles, which underpin in law their decision-taking, has been depressing. Anecdotal evidence is that some have not heard of the case of Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation (1947), which set down the standard of unreasonableness of public body decisions that render them liable to be quashed on judicial review. Officials’ decisions must take into account all relevant facts, ignore irrelevant facts and be rational.
The minister for welfare reform highlighted these principles when debating the welfare reform bill, assuring peers that officials will abide by them; but there will be no quashing of their decisions when solicitors cannot afford to consider whether to challenge in judicial review the legal inconsistencies which happen in new laws or the inevitable errors and inefficiencies.The right of all citizens to challenge over-mighty government is being carelessly undermined by welfare reform.
Rev Paul Nicolson
Chair, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust