Revisiting Burkett: Should The JR Pre-Action Protocol Be Updated?

I have a simple suggestion this week, sparked by thinking about two judicial review cases, almost 20 years apart, both involving challenges to the adequacy of environmental impact assessment processes in relation to particular schemes. In both of them the indefatigable claimant environmental lawyer Richard Buxton was on the winning side. (If anyone asks why developers nowadays routinely spend significant amounts of time and money having their lawyers review draft application and EIA documents, the answer is mostly Richard).

But my suggestion isn’t about EIA, but is about when a potential claimant should notify a defendant authority that it is considered that grounds for a potential challenge have arisen. At the moment, there is no requirement to do that, by way of a letter written in accordance with the Administrative Court’s pre-action protocol, followed by the issue of proceedings, until it is all too late and permission has been issued. This of course is part of what makes judicial review such a powerful tool for objectors to development proposals – the ability to ambush by tripping the council up on a legal point when it’s too late for them to do anything about it. I intend no specific criticism of Richard (in that it’s not a feature at all of either of the cases mentioned in this post) but often only then does the claimant’s lawyer leap out of the bushes with a multi-page “aha and gotcha” letter.

The law was in a hopeless mess 20 years ago. No-one knew whether a claimant was safe to wait to challenge the relevant planning permission once it had been issued, or whether the challenge should be to any earlier decision in the process, for instance the authority’s resolution to approve the application.

The case which put that question to bed was R (Burkett) v London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (House of Lords, 23 May 2002).

It involved St George’s Imperial Wharf development in Fulham, “a mixed use development comprising 1,803 residential units (1303 private flats and 500 affordable dwellings in the form of flats and houses), an hotel, class A1 retail, class A3 restaurant, class D community uses, health and fitness club, class B1 offices, public open space and riverside walk, together with associated car parking, landscaping and access road.”

Richard acted for Mrs Burkett, who lived in a ground floor maisonette next to the site. The council resolved to approve the application on 15 September 1999 but before then he had written to the council alleging that the environmental impact assessment being relied upon was deficient. After the resolution he continued to complain but did not issue judicial review proceedings until 6 April 2000. The planning permission was not issued until 12 May 2000.

Why the delay? Well, those were the days. Legal aid for planning-related judicial review proceedings was still available and, having started his work on a pro bono basis, Richard had to wait until the Legal Services Commission had confirmed that legal aid would be granted to Mrs Burkett, on a nil contribution basis (which also gave protection against any adverse costs orders – in the days before any Aarhus protective costs order regime).

The council submitted that the claim was out of time and Richards J at first instance and then the Court of Appeal agreed. Shades of the Dill case I mentioned last week in that it was only the House of Lords that reached the contrary view.

Lord Slynn:

In my opinion, for the reasons given by Lord Steyn, where there is a challenge to the grant itself, time runs from the date of the grant and not from the date of the resolution. It seems to me clear that because someone fails to challenge in time a resolution conditionally authorising the grant of planning permission, that failure does not prevent a challenge to the grant itself if brought in time, i e from the date when the planning permission is granted. I realise that this may cause some difficulties in practice, both for local authorities and for developers, but for the grant not to be capable of challenge, because the resolution has not been challenged in time, seems to me wrongly to restrict the right of the citizen to protect his interests. The relevant legislative provisions do not compel such a result nor do principles of administrative law prevent a challenge to the grant even if the grounds relied on are broadly the same as those which if brought in time would have been relied on to challenge the resolution.”

Lord Steyn’s reasoning:

“45. First, the context is a rule of court which by operation of a time limit may deprive a citizen of the right to challenge an undoubted abuse of power. And such a challenge may involve not only individual rights but also community interests, as in environmental cases. This is a contextual matter relevant to the interpretation of the rule of court. It weighs in favour of a clear and straightforward interpretation which will yield a readily ascertainable starting date. Entrusting judges with a broad discretionary task of retrospectively assessing when the complaint could first reasonably have been made (as a prelude to deciding whether the application is time barred) is antithetical to the context of a time limit barring judicial review.

46. Secondly, legal policy favours simplicity and certainty rather than complexity and uncertainty. In the interpretation of legislation this factor is a commonplace consideration. In choosing between competing constructions a court may presume, in the absence of contrary indications, that the legislature intended to legislate for a certain and predictable regime. Much will depend on the context. In procedural legislation, primary or subordinate, it must be a primary factor in the interpretative process, notably where the application of the procedural regime may result in the loss of fundamental rights to challenge an unlawful exercise of power. The citizen must know where he stands. And so must the local authority and the developer. For my part this approach is so firmly anchored in domestic law that it is unnecessary, in this case, to seek to reinforce it by reference to the European principle of legal certainty

50. Thirdly, the preparation of a judicial review application, particularly in a town planning matter, is a burdensome task. There is a duty of full and frank disclosure on the applicant: 053/14/57 to RSC Ord 53, r 14. The applicant must present to the court a detailed statement of his grounds, his evidence, his supporting documents in a paginated and indexed bundle, a list of essential reading with relevant passages sidelined, and his legislative sources in a paginated indexed bundle. This is a heavy burden on individuals and, where legal aid is sought, the Legal Services Commission. The Civil Procedure Rules and Practice Direction – Judicial Review Supplementing Part 54 contain similar provisions: see also the Pre-Action Protocol for Judicial Review. An applicant is at risk of having to pay substantial costs which may, for example, result in the loss of his home. These considerations reinforce the view that it is unreasonable to require an applicant to apply for judicial review when the resolution may never take effect. They further reinforce the view that it is unfair to subject a judicial review applicant to the uncertainty of a retrospective decision by a judge as to the date of the triggering of the time limit under the rules of court.

51. For all these reasons I am satisfied that the words “from the date when the grounds for the application first arose” refer to the date when the planning permission was granted. In the case before the House time did not run therefore from the resolution of 15 September 1999 but only from the grant of planning permission on 12 May 2000. It follows that in my view the decisions of Richards J and the Court of Appeal were not correct.”

This remains the legal position. The current time limit provision in the Civil Procedure Rules is as follows:

“Where the application for judicial review relates to a decision made by the Secretary of State or local planning authority under the planning acts, the claim form must be filed not later than six weeks after the grounds to make the claim first arose, holding that time runs from the actual grant of planning permission not the resolution to grant“ (CPR 54.5 (5))

Note the reference to “the actual grant of planning permission”. What if the prospective challenge is not to the grant of permission but to another specific procedural step, such as the issue by the Secretary of State of an EIA screening direction, confirming that EIA is not required?

It seems to be accepted that it is not safe to store up challenges to such decisions until permission is issued (although query the precise legal distinction with a committee resolution – might it be that screening is a specific step expressly provided for in legislation?). The question didn’t need to be raised in Richard’s latest success (pending any appeal, at least), in Swire v Secretary of State (Lang J, 22 May 2020), where he acted for an objector to another residential development. Here the dispute was as to whether EIA was required. The council disagreed and issued a negative screening opinion. He applied to the Secretary of State for a screening direction and this was also negative. He then challenged the Secretary of State’s decision to issue that direction.

(Whilst it is nothing to do with the theme of this post, Lang J’s reasons for allowing the challenge are interesting and need to be borne in mind when screening processes are undertaken:

“There was a lack of any expert evidence and risk assessment on the nature of any BSE-related contamination at the Site, and any hazards it might present to human health. The measures which might be required to remediate any such contamination and hazards had not been identified. This was a difficult and novel problem for all parties to address. It was acknowledged by the Council in its screening opinion, acting on the advice of the Environmental Health Practitioner, that specialist advice would be needed to consider the remediation of prions associated with CJD/BSE. Therefore condition 21 merely referred to the requirement that a written method statement for the remediation of land and/or groundwater would have to be agreed by the Council without any party knowing what the remediation for BSE-related infection might comprise. The Defendant adopted the Council’s approach in his screening opinion. But because of the lack of expert evidence, the Defendant was simply not in a position to make an “informed judgment” (per Dyson LJ in Jones, at [39]) as to whether, or to what extent, any proposed remedial measures could or would remediate any BSE-related contamination. It follows that when the Defendant concluded that “he was satisfied that the proposed measures would satisfactorily safeguard and address potential problems of contamination” and that “the proposed measures would safeguard the health of prospective residents of the development”, he was making an assumption that any measures proposed under condition 21 would be successful, without sufficient information to support that assumption. As Pill LJ said in Gillespie, at [41], “the test applied was not the correct one. The error was in the assumption that the investigations and works contemplated in condition VI could be treated, at the time of the screening decision, as having had a successful outcome”. Whilst “not all uncertainties have to be resolved” (per Dyson LJ in Jones at [39]), on the facts this case was not one “where the likely effectiveness of conditions or proposed remedial or ameliorative measures can be predicted with confidence” (per Pill LJ at [34]). As the Site was proposed for residential housing, a higher standard of remediation would be required than if it were intended to adapt it for an industrial use, or merely to decontaminate it and return it to woodland (some sites will never be suitable for residential housing, because of industrial contamination).

Mr Honey relied upon the advice given to the Defendant by the Environment Agency, which advised that conditions requiring risk assessment and remediation proposals would be sufficient to mitigate against potential adverse impact on the groundwater. The Environment Agency previously advised the Council that without conditions “the proposed development poses an unacceptable risk to the environment”. I do not consider that the advice from the Environment Agency justified the approach adopted by the Defendant. It confirmed the view of the Environmental Health Practitioner and the Council that further investigation and assessment was needed. It did not provide the Defendant with any evidence that there was no risk of adverse environmental impacts, nor that mitigating measures had as yet been identified which would satisfactorily overcome any such risk. Moreover, it advised that its remit was limited to the protection of the soil and groundwater, and the impact on human health – crucial to this case – was a matter for the Environmental Health Officer. It was not the Environment Agency’s responsibility to advise the Defendant on the legal requirements for undertaking a screening opinion, in the light of Gillespie and the other authorities, and on my reading of the email, it did not purport to do so.

Finally, I have some concerns about the final paragraph of Mr Carpenter’s email to his manager, dated 6 August 2019, whilst reminding myself that this was not part of the formal decision. He said:


“I acknowledge that this case is quite finely balanced. …I am, however, not convinced by what would be achieved by issuing a positive Screening Direction as all the issues have been thoroughly investigated in detailed studies/assessments submitted as part of the planning application process, other than giving the objectors “another bite of the cherry”.”

Plainly he was mistaken in believing that the issue of BSE contamination had been thoroughly investigated in the reports submitted with the planning application, as they were all completed before the developer became aware that BSE-infected carcasses had previously been disposed of at the Site. If this view informed his decision-making, it was a significant error.

Further, on my reading, he appears to suggest that, in a case where the question whether the proposed development was likely to have significant effects on the environment was “finely balanced”, an EIA would be an unnecessary extra step if the issues were “thoroughly investigated” outside the EIA procedure. However, in Champion Lord Carnwath warned against using analogous procedures instead of EIA as to do so “would subvert the purposes of the EIA Directive for that to be conducted outside the procedural framework (including the environment statement and consultation) set up by the Regulations” (at [45]). In this case, the general public does not have the right to be consulted on the developer’s reserved matters applications under conditions 21 and 22, and so the EIA procedure would provide the only opportunity for local people to be consulted on proposed measures relating to BSE contamination at this Site, as they were not set out in the reports submitted with the planning application. So, contrary to Mr Carpenter’s belief, an EIA procedure would not provide objectors with “another bite of the cherry”.

It is not entirely clear what Mr Carpenter meant by the case being quite “finely balanced” as he did not set out the factors which he found to be in favour of an EIA, but it is important to bear in mind that Lord Carnwath also advised in Champion that “[a]pplication of the precautionary principle, which underlies the EIA Directive, implies that cases of material doubt should generally be resolved in favour of EIA.” (at [51]).

In conclusion, I consider that the Defendant made the same error as in the Gillespie case, and thus his decision that EIA was not required was vitiated by a legal error.”)

Back to my main theme: when should a potential claimant notify a defendant authority that it is considered that grounds for a potential challenge have arisen? This wasn’t the issue in Burkett. Everyone was well aware of the potential claim, it was just a question as to when the proceedings should have been issued. What if Richard had kept quiet until the permission had been issued before raising any legal concerns? What would their lordships have made of that?

At present, that sort of behaviour is not the best way to impress a judge but we see it too often – where a prospective claimant identifies proposed grounds of challenge in a pre-action protocol letter only when the planning permission is finally issued and it is too late for the relevant authority and applicant to rectify the alleged defect, even if the grounds arose from a committee resolution many months previously and could have been dealt with by, for instance, a return to committee if only the point had been raised before the permission was issued and it was too late.

The Administrative Court’s pre-action protocol for judicial review, a “code of good practice” which “contains the steps which parties should generally follow before making a claim for judicial review”, says nothing expressly to discourage that approach, in that it is all at a general level that does not engage with the specific peculiarities of planning processes, where on a major scheme there can be significant delays between a resolution to grant and issue of the permission, due to subsequent negotiations in relation to the section 106 agreement and the possible need to refer the application to the Secretary of State and/or the Mayor of London:

“The aims of the protocol are to enable parties to prospective claims to—

(a) understand and properly identify the issues in dispute in the proposed claim and share information and relevant documents;

(b) make informed decisions as to whether and how to proceed;

(c) try to settle the dispute without proceedings or reduce the issues in dispute;

(d) avoid unnecessary expense and keep down the costs of resolving the dispute; and

(e) support the efficient management of proceedings where litigation cannot be avoided.”

“Where the use of the protocol is appropriate, the court will normally expect all parties to have complied with it in good time before proceedings are issued and will take into account compliance or non-compliance when giving directions for case management of proceedings or when making orders for costs”

My simple suggestion is for the pre-action protocol to be amended so as to advise prospective claimants that they should never “store up” prospective grounds of challenge until the planning permission is issued but make them known to the prospective defendant authority and potential interested parties without unreasonable delay and with the objective of giving the parties to address the grounds (if necessary by corrective administrative steps) before the planning permission is issued and before the authority is thereby functus officio ie before it is too late to undo the administrative step of issuing the permission.

And, if I may have a follow up suggestion, would it be so very difficult for there to be a publicly accessible website which identifies all judicial review proceedings which have been filed (even if the underlying papers are not immediately accessible)? Many agreements in relation to land transactions are conditional upon a planning permission being free from legal challenge. Each day matters in the context of the transaction and given the vagaries of document service, particularly in relation to interested parties, and the risks of relying on checking calls made to the court when large amounts of money are at stake for the client, surely there is a better way?

Simon Ricketts, 30 May 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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