The Law Lords decided that Gloucestershire County Council was justified in withdrawing home-help services from an 81-year-old disabled man, Michael Barry. The judgment rests on provisions for home-care services under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, but lawyers argue that it may lead councils to take a tougher line on providing education for pupils with special educational needs.
Mr Barry lives alone and has no family, he has had one stroke and several heart attacks, is partially-sighted and has an injured hip. The five law lords decided by a majority of three to two that Gloucestershire was justified in withdrawing Mr Barry's twice-weekly cleaning and laundry service because of an acute shortage of money. The Appeal Court previously ruled that Gloucestershire was not entitled to take financial difficulties into account where it had a legal duty to meet an officially assessed need.
Stephen Hocking, a lawyer with Beachcroft Stanleys, said: "It's now clear that local authorities will be able to say that their SEN budget has run out and so they can't make provision."
Earlier this year, a judge ruled that Hillingdon LEA was not justified in cutting the budget of Queensmede School because this affected children with special needs, which the court said had to be maintained regardless of the state of the LEA's finances.
The Barry case involved a long discussion about how to define "need". Lord Lloyd, who disagreed with the judgment, said that although the definition of need changes, "but in every case, the need of the individual will be assessed against the standards of civilised society as we know them in the United Kingdom". But Lord Clyde, giving the ruling, said "the words 'need' and 'necessity' are both relative expressions, admitting in each case a considerable range of meaning" - and are not defined in law.
Stephen Hocking suggested that definitions of special educational need could become more flexible in future.