Successive waves of public sector spending cuts imposed by UK central government since 2010 have generated a series of judicial reviews – the ‘cuts cases’. Many of these are challenges to the difficult choices that local authorities have had to make in reducing the provision of public services to stay within their shrinking budgets.
The cases are interesting not because they present a coherent narrative – they do not, although they certainly exhibit persistent themes – but because they test the boundaries of territory into which the courts have traditionally been reluctant to tread; namely whether to quash, on public law grounds, decisions which are driven by the need to allocate scarce resources between competing demands. As such, they tell us something about the considerable capabilities, but also the ongoing limits, of modern judicial review.
On 25 November 2015, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, revealed the next wave of public sector ‘austerity’ at more or less the same time as a number of earlier cuts cases were receiving judgment. Both offer us some useful pointers to the future.