A decision to abolish payments worth millions of pounds to organisations running accommodation schemes for the frail and elderly in Northern Ireland was fundamentally flawed, a High Court judge ruled today.
Mr Justice Horner backed Fold Housing Association’s legal challenge to a Stormont department’s withdrawal of a Special Needs Managment Allowance (SNMA) after identifying a lack of proper consultation.
The organisation claimed the move, announced in April 2013, would have grave and disastrous consequences for its ability to fund schemes for vulnerable residents, including some suffering from dementia.
Judicial review proceedings were launched against the then Department for Social Development in a bid to have the plans declared unlawful.
The court heard that housing associations would lose around £2.2m through the ending of SNMA payments to organisations providing housing with care schemes (HWCS).
Government lawyers insisted money saved will be reinvested to develop, promote and support independent accommodation schemes.
Fold runs five housing wit care schemes, including Loughview Fold in Holywood, Co Down, which was at the centre of the challenge.
Counsel for the association argued the former Minister removed the SNMA without passing amended legislation as required.
It was also contended that he ignored relevant evidence and failed to make a fair comparison between the services offered by an HWCS and residential care homes (RCH) run by the private sector.
Other grounds of challenge included a claim that the Minister failed to take into account the impact of removing the allowance on residents and their families.
In his judgment Mr Justice Horner said: “There has been no objective attempt to even consider the housing support services that the payment of SNMA permits Fold and other housing associations to provide to their vulnerable residents, and which RCH do not provide to their residents.”
He held that the Minister cannot completely ignore, as he seems to have done, a duty to assess and understand the services purchased with the special needs allowance, and also fail to objectively assess whether they are in accord with independent living before deciding if the payment should be discontinued.
The judge also identified a “conspicuous unfairness” due to a failure to consult with the housing associations.
“I have no hesitation in concluding that the decision to remove the payment of SNMA to HWCS was fundamentally flawed,” he confirmed.
“The respondent quite obviously took into account considerations it should not have taken into account and ignored others which it should have taken into account.
“It did so, largely because it failed to consult adequately before reaching a decision.
“It is likely that had there been genuine engagement the errors the respondent made would not have occurred.”
A further hearing next week will determine if the decision should now be formally quashed.