The Supreme Court handed down on the 9 May 2013 a crucially significant decision which clarifies the law in relation to section 21(1) (a) of the National Assistance Act 1948.


The case concerned the scope of obligations of local authorities under section 21 (1) (a) of the National Assistance Act 1948 to provide accommodation to individuals who by reason of age, illness, disability or any other circumstance are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them.


SL was a failed asylum seeker from Iran who suffered from depression and PTSD.  In December 2009 he had been admitted to hospital following an overdose and by April 2010 he was ready to be discharged, into the care of his local Community Mental Health Team. Upon discharge SL was assessed as needing regular sessions with mental health professionals and counselling groups and also weekly meetings with a social worker.


Westminster City Council argued that they were under no duty under section 21 (1) (a) to provide SL with accommodation. It was argued that SL was not in such need,  given that the purpose of his weekly meetings with a social worker were only a means of monitoring  what if any need for care and attention  he may need in the future. Westminster City Council also argued that needs which require the provision of accommodation under section 21(1) (a) must be accommodation related. Any assistance that SL may need therefore was “otherwise available” for the purposes of Section 21(1) (a) because it was available to him regardless of his accommodation arrangements.   


SL brought a claim for judicial review that challenged this decision.  He lost before Burnett J but succeeded in the Court of Appeal (Laws, Richards, Rimer LJJ), on the basis this support amounted to ‘care and attention’ and it was not ‘otherwise available’ because it was not reasonably practicable or efficacious to supply it without the provision of accommodation, i.e. SL would not benefit from it unless he had somewhere to live.


The Supreme Court (Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Carnwath) unanimously ruled in favour of Westminster City Council and upheld the first instance decision by Burnett J , finding that Westminster had been reasonably entitled to take the view that the social work support offered (and taken up) did not amount to care and attention and that, even if it had, it was otherwise available, in that it was available other than through the provision of accommodation, i.e. it was not accommodation-related.


It further stated that as for how to decide this issue in future, whilst the analysis may not be straightforward in every case, “it was best left to the judgment and common-sense of the local authorities concerned and would not normally involve any issue of law requiring the court’s intervention”.


Comment by Sheetal Shah – Creighton & Partners Solicitor instructed by Westminster City Council


“This is a fundamental decision which has provided clarity in this complex area of law. It is clear that the Supreme Court reached the correct decision and that any other finding would have resulted in absurd consequences for local authorities in resulting in them having a duty to provide accommodation for individuals who require all forms of social care and any form of practical assistance.


It is pleasing to see that the Supreme Court have recognised that in future such cases as to what meets the threshold for accommodation under this provision is best left to the judgment and common sense of local authorities.”