Case Law Article: Court Dismisses Academic Claim on Age Assessment Under Children and Families Act 2014

Citation: [2024] EWHC 427 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

The recent case of “R (on the application of) v London Borough of Islington” ([2024] EWHC 427 (Admin)) outlines essential considerations in judicial review applications, particularly on the question of whether a claim is academic and the procedures involved in establishing precedent fact regarding age for the application of the Children and Families Act 2014. This article delves into the key topics, legal principles, and the discretionary power of the court in dealing with what has become an academic claim.

Key Facts

The claimant, an Afghan national and asylum seeker, is at the core of a judicial review seeking to challenge the refusal by the London Borough of Islington Council to undertake an education, health, and care needs assessment under section 36 of the Children and Families Act 2014. The Council earlier assessed the Claimant to be considerably older than his professed age, hence ineligible for an assessment normally done for individuals under 25 — a decision carried forward to the contested decision dated 5 April 2023.

A “Merton-compliant” age assessment was contended for, which refers to a comprehensive approach established in R (B) v Merton London Borough Council [2003] EWHC 1689 (Admin). The claim brought forth the question of whether the Claimant was a “young person” for the purposes of Part 3 of the 2014 Act, manifesting an alleged need for a comprehensive assessment of his age before the Council could lawfully refuse the assessment.

Several legal principles are crucial in the analysis of this case:

  1. Academic Claims: Central to this case is the principle that courts generally avoid deciding on academic claims, meaning issues with no live dispute affecting the rights and obligations of the parties. The court determined that there is no longer a live issue between the Claimant and the Council; hence, the claim was deemed academic.

  2. Exceptional Discretion: The court’s discretion to hear academic claims, as established in ex p Salem [1999] 1 AC 450, is exercised cautiously and generally only where there is a good reason in the public interest, such as a point of statutory interpretation impacting a broad class of similar cases.

  3. Precedent Fact: The concept of precedent fact—whether an individual fulfills the factual prerequisite (in this case, being under the age of 25) triggering the duty to act under a statute—was referenced but not definitively required to be relied on in this judgment.

  4. Age Assessments: In the discussion associated with the “Merton-compliant” age assessment, the courts’ case law (particularly the HAM and Merton cases) elucidates the required depth and rigour of age assessments, noting their highly contextual nature. The court referenced the analogy from age assessment under the Children Act 1989 to the Children and Families Act 2014.

  5. Tameside Duty of Inquiry and Procedural Fairness: The case refers to the public law duties of conducting reasonable inquiries and acting fairly in the process, which are contingent on the context and factual background of the case.

Outcomes

The primary outcome is that the claim was dismissed, with the court decisively viewing it as an academic exercise since the claimant had moved out of the Council’s area and did not intend to return. Furthermore, the court declined to use its exceptional discretion to determine the claim, as it found no good reason to do so in the public interest.

Additionally, the court highlighted the lack of a “grey area” threshold being applicable here. The claim does not meet the rigorous filter of cases warranting consideration despite being academic, such as those elucidated in ex p Salem.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the case reflects judicial restraint in the face of claims that have become academic due to changes in circumstances. Additionally, it stresses the significance of the contextual assessment in age determination under statutory obligations, endorsing a fact-specific inquiry that is cognizant of procedural fairness and reasonable investigation, rather than a blanket application of legal tests from related statutory contexts. Therefore, while the claimant sought clarity on what he asserted as a precedent fact issue related to his age, the court found no room to provide legal redress, given the claim’s academic nature and the absence of an overriding public interest.

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