Court rules that unincorporated associations – including neighbourhood forums - have capacity to bring statutory challenges

United Kingdom

Overview

In Aireborough Neighbourhood Development Forum v Leeds City Council, it was found that an unincorporated association, in this case a neighbourhood forum, has capacity to bring both a judicial review and a statutory challenge against the decision of a public authority. 

The case confirmed that legal capacity to sue is not a critical requirement in determining a claimant’s capacity to bring a statutory challenge. Instead the claimant must be a person aggrieved, or in the case of judicial reviews, have standing to challenge.

The decision may embolden neighbourhood forums and other similar bodies to challenge planning decisions made in their local area with which they disagree.

Background

The Aireborough Neighbourhood Forum (the “Forum”) were designated as a Neighbourhood Forum by Leeds City Council (the “Council”) in July 2014. Once designated, a neighbourhood forum becomes the organisation empowered to lead the neighbourhood planning process in a neighbourhood area where there is no town or parish council. The designation lasts for five years and therefore the Forum’s designation expired in July 2019. At the time, their application for re-designation as the neighbourhood forum had been submitted to the Council but remained outstanding.

The Forum applied to challenge the decision of Leeds City Council to adopt the Leeds Site Allocations Plan (the “SAP”) under S.113 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. The SAP is a Development Plan Document which sets out the proposed allocations for planning purposes of land in the local authority’s area. The Forum had made representations throughout the SAP process regarding the nature of future development in the area. 

The Council and the two interested parties argued that the Forum did not have legal capacity to bring the claim as they were an unincorporated association.

This case followed several cases in the High Court which reached different conclusions on whether an unincorporated association had capacity to bring a judicial review.

Decision

The court found that an unincorporated association does have capacity to bring both judicial review and statutory challenges and recognised the distinction between private law and public law action.

In order to bring a private law claim, an individual must show that they have a legal right which has been infringed. It is therefore fundamental for the claimant to prove their legal capacity to sue.

However, in a statutory challenge or judicial review, the claimant must be a person aggrieved or have standing to challenge. Such a test does not consider legal capacity but instead, focuses on the critical component of sufficient interest in the decision.

The case follows the decision of R v Traffic Commissioners of the North Western Traffic Area ex p Brake which considered an applicant in such a case to be, “invoking the powers of the court to exercise its supervisory jurisdiction to quash, curb or correct decisions of bodies subject to public law.”

The alternative argument, as submitted on behalf of the Council, was that the Forum could not be a “person aggrieved” because their statutory functions and rights had fallen away at the point of expiry of their designation as the neighbourhood forum. Lieven J found this was incorrect. The purposes of the Forum relating to the good planning of Aireborough continued to apply and the absence of statutory designation did not prevent the Forum from being a person aggrieved by the local authority’s decision.

Conclusion

It is likely that certain neighbourhood forums and other similar bodies who are intending to influence the decisions and plans of their local authority will welcome this decision. The outcome of the case is also likely to have wider implications for other public law cases, although how far reaching that impact will be is yet to be determined.

As their standing to bring their claim has now been confirmed, the full hearing of the Forum’s statutory challenge to the SAP is due to take place in February 2020.