Dealing with a public body can become a very awkward and frustrating process. Indeed, it often feels as though such an entity is a law unto itself. People can become confused as to whether or not they are able to pursue any official action against such an organisation when they believe that it has acted unlawfully in some way.
Is there some form of action that you can take if you find yourself in this situation? The simple answer to this question is ‘possibly’.
First, though, it is necessary to consider what is meant by the term ‘public body’. This category would include the following:
- Local authorities
- Government departments
- Inferior courts (e.g. magistrates’ courts)
- Quangos (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations)
Where any of the above types of public bodies have made a decision or acted in a way that you believe to be unlawful, you may well be able to pursue what is known as a ‘judicial review’ against them. It should be remembered, however, that only three specific grounds may be pursued for a judicial review to be granted in the High Court. These are as follows:
This situation will arise where a decision-maker has failed to apply the correct law in relevance to the particular decision. The situation is defined more clearly in the case of Council of Civil Service Unions v. Minister for Civil Service  AC 374, where Lord Diplock states that in order to avoid illegality ‘a decision-maker must understand correctly the law that regulates his decision-making power and must give effect to it’.
These grounds for judicial review may become apparent when a decision-maker has relied upon an obviously illogical or manifestly absurd decision. In common law, this is asserted more clearly in the following provisions:
- Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v. Wednesbury Corporation  1 KB 223: In this case, Lord Greene MR established the fact that a decision made on behalf of a public body will be irrational if it is ‘so unreasonable that no reasonable body could have come to the decision’.
- In the case of Council of Civil Service Unions (as above), Lord Diplock also went on to define irrationality in the instance where a decision made is ‘so outrageous in its defiance of logic or accepted moral standards that no sensible person who applied his mind to the question… could have arrived at it’.
There are five separate grounds for judicial review challenge where procedural impropriety is concerned. These are as follows:
- Failure to give a fair hearing
- Breach of statutory procedural requirements
- Nemo iudex in sua causa (‘No man shall be a judge in his own case’)
- Audi alteram partem (‘Hear the other side’)
The last two from the above list are more commonly referred to as the common-law rules for procedural fairness (or ‘natural justice’).
If an individual were successful in his or her judicial review against a decision made by a public body, the High Court would have the power to grant either of the following remedies:
- A ‘quash the public body’ act: In this case, the public body would be required to reconsider its original decision and act in accordance with the relevant law.
- Restraint from continuing to act unlawfully: If those responsible for the original decision continued to act unlawfully, they would be committing ‘contempt of court’, a criminal offence.
Financial damages are not really applicable where judicial reviews are concerned. This legal action is more concerned with providing an individual with an avenue whereby the courts can determine whether or not a public body has acted unlawfully and can order it to re-evaluate and change such a decision.
Although this is a very succinct overview of the relevant grounds for a judicial review, we hope that this article will provide you with an understanding of the key points involved. If you are otherwise unfamiliar with public law, it will be helpful to keep this information in the back of your mind, especially if you do deal with your local council or other public bodies on a regular basis.
While a number of public bodies are threatened with judicial reviews on many occasions, in practice (and so speaks the voice of experience here) most are disturbingly unmoved by such action. Some of the London boroughs are perfect examples. When you consider the fact that the judicial review is an individual’s last chance for justice from such public organisations, it can be exceptionally frustrating to know you are in the right but the local authority is failing to take your threat of action seriously.
Judicial reviews are criticised by many people who believe that the reviews have become outdated and fail to cover all relevant eventualities in the everyday dealings between individuals and public bodies.