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Acting ultra vires through the application of executive powers is not something alien to public authority decision-making, but it is equally important that those seeking legal review are clear as to exactly what has constituted a breach of their jurisdiction.
During the period following the second world war, there were three Acts that affected the opening times of cinematograph houses across the UK. The first was the Cinematograph Act 1909, the second was the Sunday Entertainments Act 1932, and third was Defence Regulation 42B, which was introduced during the war, but remained effective until late 1947.
When it was decided by an issuing local authority to grant a trading licence to their local picture house, there came with it restrictions preventing any attendance by children aged below fifteen years of age, regardless of whether they were accompanied by an adult. While appreciative of the opportunity to open on a day typically reserved for domestic pursuits, the appellants sought judicial review on grounds that such a restriction was self-defeating and thereby ‘unreasonable’.
As there were three Acts from which to rely upon, it was agreed that for the purposes of clarity the Sunday Entertainments Act was the most appropriate, and yet within the terms prescribed, s.1 ss.1 provided that the issue of a licence was “subject to such conditions as the authority think fit to impose.” This, it was agreed, allowed the local authority to apply its discretion to the limitations of the permit, and so by extension, it had acted accordingly.
When heard in the first instance, the court dismissed the objections brought by the picture house, and after a brief but considered review of that decision, it was reiterated that while the courts are able to question the legal validity of executive decisions, they are not equipped nor predisposed, to challenge the illegitimacy of those limitations, unless the body in question has applied it powers outside the boundaries of reasonableness, and in ignorance of required objectives.
Relying upon the relevant case history behind these matters, there was, despite strong opposition by the commercial vendors, no precedent upon which their argument could stand, and thus held that it was important to hold in mind the scope of discretion afforded local authorities when following statute before taking up the court’s time over a difference of opinion, rather than issues of genuine public interest.
“[T]he court, whenever it is alleged that the local authority have contravened the law, must not substitute itself for that authority.”
“If, in the statute conferring the discretion, there is to be found expressly or by implication matters which the authority exercising the discretion ought to have regard to, then in exercising the discretion it must have regard to those matters.”
“[A] person entrusted with a discretion must, so to speak, direct himself properly in law. He must call his own attention to the matters which he is bound to consider. He must exclude from his consideration matters which are irrelevant to what he has to consider.”
“[T]he task of the court is not to decide what it thinks is reasonable, but to decide whether what is prima facie within the power of the local authority is a condition which no reasonable authority, acting within the four corners of their jurisdiction, could have decided to impose.”
“The court is entitled to investigate the action of the local authority with a view to seeing whether they have taken into account matters which they ought not to take into account or, conversely, have refused to take into account or neglected to take into account matters which they ought to take into account.”
“The power of the court to interfere in each case is not as an appellate authority to override a decision of the local authority, but as a judicial authority which is concerned, and concerned only, to see whether the local authority have contravened the law by acting in excess of the powers which Parliament has confided in them.”