A Supreme Court judgement that states that local authorities cannot take their finances into account when assessing the needs of people for social care has been hailed as potentially the biggest ruling in community care law in 15 years.

The ruling in the case of KM – a blind, autistic wheelchair user – versus Cambridgeshire County Council could open up access to social care services to thousands of people with learning disabilities who had previously been denied. In the case, KM was offered a care package that he argued did not meet his needs sufficiently. As part of the case, law firm Irwin Mitchell representing four national charities  - Sense, National Autistic Society (NAS), RNIB and Guide Dogs – sought to clarify whether a local authority can take their financial resources into account when assessing someone’s needs.

Although the court ruled against KM, the judgement made it clear that “resources are not to be taken into account” when establishing the needs of disabled people. Some councils have restricted assessments on the grounds of costs and while others did not, which has resulted in a postcode lottery for social care. The court also made it clear that when social care support is provided by direct payments to the individual it is “crucial” that local authorities provide “a reasonable degree of detail so that a judgement can be made whether the indicative sum is too high, too low or about right.” 

Yogi Amin, partner in the public law team at Irwin Mitchell, said: “This is potentially the biggest community care ruling in 15 years. Although KM’s appeal has not been successful, we are pleased that the Supreme Court has now clarified the law with regard to local authorities taking their resources into account when assessing a disabled person’s needs. “The previous judgement providing direction on this issue was Barry which is 15 years old, so it is great to now have further clarity and potentially see thousands of people get access to social care across the country.”

 The judgement clarifies a previous ruling in 1997 by the House of Lords which suggested that a local authority’s resources may be taken into account when determining the care needs of individuals. As a result local authorities currently assess and meet an individual’s needs taking into account the resources they have available – rather than first establishing the person’s full individual needs. The charities argued that the law has been misinterpreted and that each individual should be assessed in the first instance in terms of what care they need, rather than the local authority’s financial position.

Mark Lever, chief executive of the NAS, welcomed the court’s clarification. “The fact that Court recognised the assessment for social care should not be based on a ‘computer says so’ system is an important step forward. This sends a clear message to all local authorities that they have a duty of care to be transparent about how they assess and allocate funds to disabled people whether they live in Liverpool or Luton. “KM is an individual with extremely complex needs and as a charity supporting people with autism we understand the importance that individuals and their families get adequate support. However, a recent NAS survey found that 62% of adults with autism don’t have enough support to meet their needs. “The case highlights the complexity of the current social care system which sees families struggle against a process that is overly complicated. The Government must stop delaying in their reforms and put an end to this social care crisis, while local authorities need to be clearer about the support they are offering and why.”