High Court finds for local authority in dispute over backdating of council tax discounts in cases of severe mental health impairment

A High Court judge has upheld a district council’s decision not to backdate a council tax discount due to severe mental health impairment (SMI) to the date where symptoms were first diagnosed.

In Brown v Hambleton District Council [2021] EWHC 1 (Admin) local resident Derek Brown unsuccessfully appealed a ruling of the Valuation Tribunal.

Mr Brown had applied to Hambleton for a council tax discount as his wife suffered from SMI resulting from Alzheimer's disease.

To qualify for the discount (a single person’s discount of 25% in this case) certification was needed from a medical practitioner stating when the patient first started to suffer from the disease and be entitled to a qualifying benefit, which in most cases is attendance allowance.

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Hambleton agreed to the discount, but only from the date that the allowance was in payment, not when the symptoms were first diagnosed.

This gave rise to Mr Brown’s claim for backdated discount of £345.71 for the period 1 February to 29 November 2018.

The appellant made it clear that his aim in the litigation was to seek to establish the right of others in similar difficulties to make a successful claim backdated to the date of medical certification.

Mr Brown argued that alone among qualifying benefits for the discount attendance allowance required a six-month period following medical qualification before a claim could be lodged.

He said this was unlawful discrimination against people suffering from dementia who make up the majority of claimants.

HHJ Gosnell said the essential disagreement concerned the interpretation of section 1 of the Administration Act 1992.

Mr Brown argued that the phrase “except in such cases as may be prescribed” at the start of the section meant except in such cases prescribed by law.

He said Schedule 1 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 and Article 3 of Council Tax (Discount Disregards) Order 1992 are prescribed by law and contain the only pre-conditions for obtain a council tax discount namely severe mental impairment and being entitled to (but not necessarily in receipt of) attendance allowance.

HHJ Gosnell said: “I am afraid that I disagree with his interpretation of this phrase.”

He said the Act contained a definition section, which said ‘prescribe’ meant ‘prescribe by regulations’ and so section 1 of the Administration Act applied to all claims for a benefit unless a regulation prescribes that it should not.

He said Mr Brown’s arguments did not get over “the fundamental statutory rule that a person is not entitled to a benefit until they have made a claim. I have already found that no specified exemption exists for attendance allowance in the regulations.”

The judge also said he could not rely on research Mr Brown had carried out from 288 different councils in England and Wales to find out how many of them habitually permitted backdating of council tax rebate claims to the date of medical certification. First, this was because it was not binding on him, “and secondly it is likely that some of the councils are not acting in accordance with the law, given that they are taking two conflicting approaches it seems.”

HHJ Gosnell said Mr Brown had also sought to argue that Hambleton acted contrary to Articles 3 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights in rejecting his claim.

“He confessed during the hearing that he was unable to progress this bare submission by reference to legal principles or authorities,” HHJ Gosnell said. “He admitted that it was his way of asking the court to treat his appeal fairly.”

HHJ Gosnell assured him the case would be handled fairly but “I could not allow my personal sympathy for himself and Mrs Brown to cloud my judgment on what essentially is an issue of construction of the relevant legislation”.

There had been no interference with rights under either Article 3 or Article 14 on the facts of this appeal, the judge said.

Mark Smulian

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