A discussion of the decision of R and Naureen Hyatt and Salford City Council 2012 (which relates to judicial reviews, costs disputes and accommodation under section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948 as it pertains to failed asylum seekers, so I hope you will forgive me for a flight of fancy and digression to liven it up)
I once read that the screen-writing Coen Brothers use a particular technique in creating tension in their films. They write a scene, and box the character into a corner, a predicament that there is no possible way out of. They bat around possible solutions until they exhaust all possible exits that they can think of.
Then they leave the script for a week, a month, however long it takes, until they have hit upon an escape mechanism for that predicament – the idea being that if they are genuinely stumped at how to escape the scene, the audience won’t be likely to be able to second guess in a few moments the solution that took them months to hit upon.
In Ancient Greece, when playwrights constructed their plays, usually involving a combination of philosophy, fine wordplay and frogs, they often found that they had boxed themselves into a corner. The hero was faced with a situation that could not possibly be resolved. A grisly death, a broken heart, an unsolveable dilemma, was all that lay ahead. How to deliver a happy ending?
And their solution to this was the deus ex machina, the ghost in the machine. A crane type device would be used to lower an actor into the stage or arena, the actor playing a God. Of course, the God could solve any problem in an instant, resolve any dilemma, any drama. That was a boon to the playwright, but of course robs the scene of any dramatic tension.
Imagine if you were watching an episode of 24 and Jack Bauer was trapped inside a volcano in Hawaii that’s about to erupt, he is handcuffed to the steering wheel of his car, and the ignition keys are in the beak of a paramilitary parakeet who we have just watched fly away, and then he learns that a nuclear bomb is about to go off at the Hoover dam in just two minutes and only his fingerprint can stop the bomb and then the credits roll. Tense, or what?
If you tune in the following week, to see God fly down into the volcano, stop time and instantly transport Jack to the Hoover damn and unlock his handcuffs, you might feel disappointed by this resolution. The next time there is a cliffhanger, you won’t feel apprehensive and nervous about how Jack will get out of it, you’ll just think “Ah, God will come down and sort it out” – in short, the cheap device used to get the writers out of a tough spot will just make you feel cheated.
[The way I did when watching the black and white serial Rocket Man aged 12, when a “cliffhanger” showed a car in which Rocket Man was locked in the trunk plummet off a cliff, clearly showing that it went over the edge and that nobody got out of it so he was undoubtedly dead, and next week’s episode began with completely different footage of him jumping out before it went off the cliff. I remain bitter about this, to this very day, and I never watched another episode]
Curse you Rocket Man! !!
So, deus ex machina became frowned on as a narrative device, and to this day are viewed as a bit of a cop out, or cheap flimsy storytelling.
Anyway, on to the case,
Essentially, the claimant was a failed asylum seeker and wanted the Local Authority to provide him with accommodation under section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948.
- Section 21 of the 1948 Act provides:
“(1) Subject to and in accordance with the provisions of this Part of this Act, a local authority may with the approval of the Secretary of State, and to such extent as he may direct shall, make arrangements for providing —
(a) residential accommodation for persons who by reason of age, illness, disability or any other circumstances are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them; and
(aa) residential accommodation for expectant and nursing mothers who are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them
(1A) A person to whom section 115 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (exclusion from benefits) applies may not be provided with residential accommodation under subsection (1)(a) if his need for care and attention has arisen solely —
(a) because he is destitute; or
(b) because of the physical effects, or anticipated physical effects, of his being destitute.”
So, his being a failed asylum seeker makes it very hard for him to get accommodation under s21, and he claimed his need was not as a result of destitution or physical effects of destitution, and the LA claimed that it was.
Various demanding and defying letters were exchanged and a judicial review was issued.
By the time the case got into a substantive hearing, the claimant had managed to overturn the immigration authorities decision that his asylum claim was refused. That then gets rid of s 21 (1A) as a relevant factor.
Accord was reached that he would be provided with accommodation and the claim was withdrawn.
There then followed a debate about costs – the Claimant claimed that he should win his costs because he had achieved his desired result but had had to bring a JR case to do it, the LA claimed that costs should not be paid as the issue had not been litigated and the Claimant might well not have been successful if it had been.
The Judge decided that it was not possible to determine which side would have won had the issue been litigated, and made no order as to costs.
The Claimant appealed.
The relevant legal authority on this vexed issue of where costs fall in a JR case where the matter is settled rather than litigated is set out in Re M v Croydon LBC 2012
- On 8th May 2012 the Court of Appeal handed down its decision in R (M) v Croydon London Borough Council  EWCA Civ 595,  1 WLR 2607. The claimant in that case was an asylum seeker, whose age was in dispute. The claimant brought judicial review proceedings to compel the defendant local authority to reassess his age. The action ultimately settled in the claimant’s favour, leaving only the question of costs to be determined by the court. Lindblom J decided that there should be no order for costs. The Court of Appeal allowed the claimant’s appeal and ordered the defendant to pay the claimant’s costs.
- Lord Neuberger MR gave the leading judgment, with which Hallett and Stanley Burnton LJJ agreed. At paragraphs 47 to 64 Lord Neuberger gave general guidance as to how costs should be dealt with following a settlement. In the latter part of that passage he dealt specifically with cases in the Administrative Court. He identified three different scenarios. The first scenario is a case where the claimant has been wholly successful whether following a contested hearing or pursuant to a settlement. The second scenario is a case where the claimant has only succeeded in part following a contested hearing or pursuant to a settlement. The third scenario is a case where there has been some compromise which does not actually reflect the claimant’s claims.
- At paragraph 63 Lord Neuberger gave the following guidance in respect of the third scenario:
“In case (iii), the court is often unable to gauge whether there is a successful party in any respect and, if so, who it is. In such cases, therefore, there is an even more powerful argument that the default position should be no order for costs. However, in some such cases it may well be sensible to look at the underlying claims and inquire whether it was tolerably clear who would have won if the matter had not settled. If it is, then that may well strongly support the contention that the party who would have won did better out of the settlement, and therefore did win.”
[This is a pain in the neck decision, since now when you settle a JR, you have to have an argument about who would have won, if you’d fought the whole thing, which is nearly as cumbersome as just fighting the whole thing]
The Claimant argued that effectively, having settled the case and obtained his desired outcome, the original Judge ought to have determined that he had succeeded or would have succeeded had the case been litigated, and that costs should have followed.
The Court of Appeal disagreed , and you will see from my underlining, that they considered that the reason for the favourable settlement was the intervention of a third party – the immigration authority reversing their decision – a deus ex machina, and where that was the cause of the favourable settlement, one could not determine that the Local Authority were to blame.
- The second ground of appeal is that when one looks at all the factors which ought to have been taken into account, the judge should have been driven to the conclusion that the defendant should pay the claimants’ costs. The factors upon which the claimants rely are the following:
i) The claimants achieved the substantive benefit which they were seeking, namely long term housing and welfare support.
ii) The claimants achieved an immediate benefit, namely interim relief, which they could not have achieved without litigation.
iii) The claimants complied with the pre-action protocol and sent appropriate letters to the council before commencing proceedings.
iv) The conduct of the council was unreasonable. It resisted the claimants’ claim at every stage. It brushed aside the letters from the claimants’ solicitors. It did not provide interim accommodation for the claimants until it was ordered to do so.
v) The claimants’ case was strong. If the litigation had gone to trial, it is very likely that they would have won.
- Let me deal with those factors in the order set out above. As to the first factor, it is undoubtedly correct that the claimants have achieved their ultimate objective, namely long term housing and welfare benefits. On the other hand they have achieved that objective not because of any court order or concession by the council. The claimants have achieved that objective because of the Secretary of State’s decision to grant exceptional leave to remain. As Moore-Bick LJ observed in argument, this came as a deus ex machina. In my view the favourable intervention by a third party not involved in the litigation cannot be a reason to order the defendant to pay the claimants’ costs.
- I turn now to the second factor. The claimants applied for interim relief. The council opposed the application. The court granted interim relief. If the claimants had applied on 10th December 2010 for the costs of the interim relief application, Judge Waksman may have ordered the council to pay those costs. Alternatively, he may have ordered that the claimants’ cost of the application be costs in the cause. In the event, however, with the agreement of both parties Judge Waksman reserved the costs of the interim relief application, without any discussion of the basis on which costs were reserved.
- Since the underlying dispute between the parties never came to trial, I do not see any basis upon which Judge Stewart on 12th April 2012 could have ordered that the costs reserved by Judge Waksman on 10th December 2010 be paid by the council. Indeed in their lengthy written submissions on costs dated 30th March 2012 the claimants did not ask for an order that they be awarded the reserved costs of the interim application. I am therefore quite satisfied that Judge Stewart cannot be criticised for failing to make any separate and specific order in respect of the reserved costs.
- Mr. Wise relies upon the claimants’ success in obtaining interim relief as one of the reasons why Judge Stewart should have awarded to the claimants the entire costs of the action. He points out that the claimants got what they wanted in the teeth of the council’s opposition.
- The difficulty with this argument is that Judge Waksman was not adjudicating upon the substantive dispute between the parties. He began his judgment by saying that for the purpose of the current application the claimants had “a fairly modest task”. They only had to show their case was “prima facie arguable”. He did not even decide whether the claimants’ case was strong enough to merit the grant of permission to proceed. He simply made an order for interim relief to protect the claimants’ position until there could be a “rolled up” hearing.
- In my view, the fact that the claimants obtained interim relief does not mean that they were successful in the action. It is not a reason for awarding to the claimants the costs of the action.
- I turn now to the third factor. The claimants are to be commended for complying with the pre-action protocol. If following the commencement of proceedings the council had conceded the relief sought without admitting liability, they would have had difficulty in resisting an order for costs. The present case, however, is different. There has been no substantive decision by the court and no concession by the council. In these circumstances the fact that the claimants complied with the protocol is not a reason for awarding to them the costs of the action.
- I turn next to the fourth factor, the conduct of the council. The council, like the claimants, have been consistent. They have carried out assessments as required by 1990 Act. They concluded that they were not obliged to provide accommodation for the claimants pursuant to section 21 of the 1948 Act. This was the council’s position both before and after the issue of proceedings. Whether the council were right in their assessment of the position is a matter which has not been judicially determined. In my view, the council’s conduct in this case is not such as to attract an adverse costs order.
- I come finally to the fifth factor, the strength of the claimants’ underlying case. We have heard submissions from Mr. Wise as to why the claimants would probably have won. We have heard submissions from Mr. Howell as to why the claimants’ case was unfounded and they would probably have lost.
- It is not the function of this court on a costs appeal to give a substantive decision about litigation which never came to trial. Suffice it to say that both Mr. Wise and Mr. Howell put forward formidable arguments.
- For present purposes, it is necessary to focus on the material which was placed before Judge Stewart in April 2012. This comprised the parties’ written submission on costs and the court file. The court file would have included the pleadings and the evidence previously lodged. On reading and re-reading this material, I am not surprised that Judge Stewart was uncertain as to who would have won if the action had come to trial. I find myself in a similar state of uncertainty. In my view, it cannot possibly be said that the judge’s conclusion in this regard was either wrong or perverse.
- On reviewing all the circumstances of this case, I do not believe that the judge’s costs order can be faulted. The judge made no error of law or error of principle in the exercise of his discretion under rule 44.3 which would warrant intervention by this court
I know, this rambled about a bit *, but come on, you never thought you’d get Jack Bauer, volcanoes, Rocket Man, Greek theatre and parakeets in a law article on costs orders in judicial reviews, did you?
[* a lot ]