Inadequate Consultation & Other Public Law Pitfalls for Academies
In Part 1 of this post I outlined the public law pitfalls for academies when they exercise their public functions. One of the ways in which academy trusts can ensure they comply is to conduct a fair consultation process before taking major decisions with a public character..
The crucial importance of consultation
The duty to consult before taking major decisions may be expressly required by specific legislation, such as section 5 of the Academies Act 2010 (where a school is proposing to convert), or Section 10 (where a free school is being proposed), or it may be implied as a matter of good administrative practice. Either way, the decision-maker will expose itself to risk of a claim for a flawed consultation process if it doesn’t follow the correct procedures. As well as being a legal duty in itself, in some circumstances, the running of a consultation exercise may be seen as a way to improve transparency and enhance the quality of decision-making. Although it may be an administrative burden with some expense involved, it may help to fend off other types of challenges later because it will elicit information and relevant facts that the decision-maker needs to be aware of before proceeding, and will help to show that the decision maker made proper enquiries (for example, around the equalities impact of any proposals, such as the effects on ethnic minorities or disabled persons).
The sort of contentious proposals on which a consultation might be required include choosing or changing a sponsor, joining or leaving a Multi Academy Trust, changing admissions arrangements, changes to SEN provision, or opening a Sixth Form.
Golden rules for a fair and bullet-proof consultation
To avoid the risk of challenge to the consultation exercise itself, or to the subsequent decision which is based on it, the consultation must always be carried out fairly. What is fair will depend on the particular circumstances and the nature of the proposals under consideration. It will always be sensible for decision-makers to take more care if the proposals are likely to be very controversial. If the statute or Government guidance lays down specific requirements for the consultation, then these must be adhered to, but otherwise there will be a broad discretion to design the process as they see fit. The Courts have laid down the following key principles known as the Gunning principles