Judicial review

Students looking for a memorable case where the claimant makes an application to the Queens Bench Divisional Court for a judicial review of a decision, may find the case of Ms Shoesmith, the former Head of Haringey Council's Child Care Services, helpful.

Sharon Shoesmith claims that she was was dismissed unfairly and unjustly in December 2008, following the political intervention of the Education Secretary, Ed Balls.  Ms Shoesmith's claim is that the Education Secretary breached the 'rules of natural justice' in the manner in which he dismissed her from her post.  Ms Shoesmith had been the head of children's services at Haringey Council in London.  The sacking was over the death of Baby Peter.

Ms Shoesmith made an application for a judicial review.  The proceedings are against her former employing authority, Ofsted, who have supervisory responsibilities, and Mr Ed Balls.  The application was made to the Queens Bench Divisional Court in effect requesting that the decision to dismiss is reviewed by the court.

There are a number of principles which must be followed according to the rules of natural justice.  Some of the more important ones are:

  • every one should know the nature of the case against them;
  • there is a duty to hear both sides before a decision is made;
  • no one should act as judge in their own cause.

You may wonder what possible justification there could be for challenging Ms Shoesmith's dismissal.  The dismissal followed not only the death of Baby Peter but the subsequent trial of his mother, Tracey Connelly, her partner, Steven Barker and Barker's brother, Jason Owen.  All three were jailed for their part in Peter's death.

Part of Ms Shoesmith's case is that she was unfairly and unjustly dismissed only after Mr Ed Balls allowed himself to be influenced by a 'media storm and a witch hunt' following the publication of details of what happened to Baby Peter.   The suggestion is that Mr Balls acted out of desperation after he realised that he may face continued embarrassment in the media if he were questioned about his Department's apparent lack of action over the matter.  Ms Shoesmith's lawyers drew attention to how pressure on Haringey Council to dismiss Ms Shoesmith came after a heated exchange about Baby Peter during Prime Ministers question time on November 12th 2008.  By this time it had become public knowledge (and presumably it ought to have been known to professionals directly involved) that Baby Peter had died in tragic circumstances which allegedly could have been prevented.  It is alleged that within a short time of the embarrassing exchange in the House of Commons, David Bell, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and Beverley Hughes, the Children's Minister, had contacted senior officials at Haringey council 'seeking her dismissal'.

The allegations concerning Mr Balls, extend to his attempts to influence an official body having powers over child care services i.e. Ofsted.  The suggestion is that it was at about this time that he instructed Ofsted to go into Haringey and review its work. 

The Divisional court has announced that a reserved judgement will be made. We must await the outcome, but the case does serve as a timely reminder that, no matter how damning the matter seems to be, we may pay a heavy price for not following the rules of natural justice.

Whatever the outcome, it is extremely unlikely that, even if she wins her case and the decision to dismiss her is quashed and done away with, Ms Shoesmith could contemplate returning to her former place of work.  She is claiming damages.  In this regard it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the court's powers in such cases is quite specific.  The court has three 'prerogative' orders it may make when there has been a breach of natural justice.  The orders are:

  • 'Mandamus' a mandatory order.  This is addressed to the inferior court or tribunal (this will include an authority or Official under an obligation to act in a quasi judicial manner) to carry out a duty.  In this case to hear a case properly including hearing both sides;
  • a prohibition order, which effectively prevents the body concerned from dealing with a matter which it has no authority to hear or deal with;
  • a quashing order, which does away with the decision in the sense that it is quashed and therefore had no authority or effect.

The case is also relevant to the matter of 'ultra vires' in the sense that Ms Shoesmith's lawyers have argued that the events surrounding the dismissal were 'beyond the powers of the Secretary of State, as set out by s497A (4B) of the Education Act 1996'.

We must await the divisional courts judgement.




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