Council care budget ping-pong

Posted: 11th October 2012

Sunderland City Council has triumphed over South Tyneside Council in a legal ping-pong match over which of them must cover the very substantial cost of looking after a mental patient when she is well enough to return to the community.

In an important ruling for local authorities, the Court of Appeal has decided that the woman was ‘resident’ in South Tyneside within the meaning of section 117 of the Mental Health Act 1983 because, at the relevant time, she had been compulsorily committed to a mental hospital in that area.

The woman suffers from an unusual form of Asperger's Syndrome and a borderline personality disorder and the cost of giving her the support she needs throughout her life is likely to run into millions of pounds.

Sunderland City Council’s lawyers had earlier told the court that the case raised issues of ‘considerable importance’ to all local authorities, particularly those with a high density of mental hospitals in their areas.

Given the size of the potential cost burden, Lord Justice Lloyd, sitting with Lords Justice Richards and Elias, said that it was ‘understandable’ that both councils had objected to having liability to pay for the woman's care cast upon them.

However, he ruled that the only alternative to a finding that responsibility lay upon South Tyneside Council was to declare that she had ‘no residence’ and that should be viewed as an option of ‘last resort’.

The woman is originally from Yorkshire but attended a residential course in Sunderland where she lived in halls of residence before attempting suicide in late 2009. She was eventually admitted to a mental hospital in South Tyneside. At first that was on an ‘informal’ basis, however she was later compulsorily detained for her own protection at the same hospital.

At the High Court in 2011, a judge found against Sunderland City Council on the basis that the mental hospital in South Tyneside was only designed for short-term treatment and that the woman should therefore be viewed as ‘ordinarily resident’ in Sunderland.

Upholding the city council’s appeal, Lord Justice Lloyd said that the South Tyneside hospital was the only place in which the woman could be said to be ‘resident’ at the relevant time as there was no other placement available to her when she was compulsorily detained there.