Good news on public service delivery, but not on judicial review

An endowment fund to help charities win public service delivery contracts should be welcomed, says Stephen Cook, but proposed government changes to judicial review costs are worrying

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

It’s good news that the Office for Civil Society is setting up a £100m endowment fund to help charities and social enterprises become more robust and effective at winning public service delivery contracts. The Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, has been in office for nearly three months and has clearly been trying to build a better support system for the sector.

There was some awkwardness about the announcement. The minister mentioned it in a speech at the Stock Exchange 10 days ago, when it emerged that £60m of the fund will consist of loan repayments to the now defunct Futurebuilders Fund – this sum was announced in June. But the two prospective partners in the new venture, the Big Lottery Fund and Big Society Capital, were not yet ready to talk about it.

It’s understandable that the minister wants to tell a good story as soon as possible, and we will no doubt hear the details in due course. He mentioned that the fund would run over 10 years, which presumably means that the annual sum available will be £10m, plus investment income and repayments from any money distributed as loans.

Elsewhere on the political front, it’s also good news that Labour, if elected, would repeal the provisions approved in parliament last week that will have the greatest effect in deterring charities from becoming involved in judicial reviews.

Lisa Nandy, the shadow charities minister, said last week that the party would reverse the requirement in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill for organisations to pay the costs of other parties if their intervention in the case is deemed not to have been of "significant assistance to the court" or a large part of the intervention is considered unnecessary.

The House of Lords, rightly, wanted any costs awarded to be entirely at the discretion of the court, but chose in the end to accept a new formulation that reduces that discretion. This means that charities will have to think more carefully about the potential costs of intervening, and will probably be less willing to do so.

Cuts to legal aid mean that charities are often the only organisations with the capacity to support those who wish to challenge in the courts the lawfulness and reasonableness of the decisions of national and local government. Their opponents will be much less worried about the financial risks created by the new provisions, which in effect slant the playing field against the ordinary citizen.

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