In its recent judgment in R (on the application of Sambotin) v London Borough of Brent, concerning the local authority’s decision of Mr Sambotin’s application for assistance under the Housing Act 1996 (the Act), the Court of Appeal considered and confirmed the application of the doctrine of “functus officio“. This is the principle that decisions of public authorities (but also of other official decision-making bodies such as arbitrators) are deemed to be final and binding once they are made and cannot subsequently be revisited or revoked by the decision-maker.
The facts of the case are that following an unsuccessful homelessness application to the London Borough of Waltham Forest (Waltham) and a move of area, Mr Sambotin made a homelessness application to the London Borough of Brent (Brent) informing them at the same time of his previous unsuccessful application to Waltham. Following its consideration of the application, Brent confirmed to Mr Sambotin that it was satisfied that he was homeless and not intentionally so, was eligible for assistance, and in priority need. However, it was not satisfied that Mr Sambotin had a local connection with Brent and, in accordance with section 198 of the Act, was making a referral to Waltham as it considered that such a local connection existed with Waltham.
Waltham did not accept that section 198 referral. This was on the basis that, in line with its earlier decision, it did not consider Mr Sambotin to be eligible for housing assistance. Brent then notified Mr Sambotin that it had withdrawn the section 198 referral to Waltham while it made further enquiries into his eligibility. It subsequently informed him that he was not eligible for housing assistance.
The issue before the Court of Appeal was whether Brent could revisit and revise its conclusions with regard to the applicant’s eligibility as it had purported to do. The general public law principles of fairness and certainty provide that, other than in limited circumstances for example where there has been fraud or a fundamental mistake of fact, once a public authority has exercised its statutory power any later attempts to remake that decision will be ultra vires – outside of its power – and that it will be functus officio.
Initially, Brent had argued that the earlier decision resulted from a fundamental mistake of fact and it was therefore entitled to revisit and change that decision. It pursued this line of argument in the lower court – which found for Mr Sambotin – but did not follow through with it on appeal. On appeal its primary contention (which was also dismissed by the lower court) was that it had not completed its enquiries under section 185 of the Act, that this was evidenced by its section 198 referral to Waltham and that it had not therefore made an earlier final decision as to eligibility.
The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal and found that the first decision made by Brent and communicated to the applicant (and to Waltham Forest) was a final decision. It found that the issues of eligibility for homelessness assistance and of local connection were two distinct questions to be decided and that the latter only fell to be determined once a decision on the former had been made. Therefore, when making a local connection referral under section 198 of the Act, Brent had already decided that the applicant was eligible for homelessness assistance.
While the context in this particular case concerned a local authority decision made under the Housing Act 1996, the judgment is a useful reminder to all public bodies that where they make a decision which grants rights and/or benefits to a third party that decision is final and binding and (other than in very limited circumstances) they do not have the power to re-examine, reverse or revoke the decision.