Jagoo v Bristol City Council: Not so taxing after all

Chris Milsom has won in the Court of Appeal in this landmark case which has held that additional hours provided by a university by way of reasonable adjustments for disabled students should be included in consideration of exemption from Council Tax.

Facts

Ms Jagoo is a part time PhD student who, by reason of her dyslexia, has a disability under the Equality Act 2010. For students without any disabilities, the course required 20 hours a week. The University provided Ms Jagoo with additional support by way of reasonable adjustments consisting of one hour per week of study skills and assistance with proof reading, amounting to 30 hours per year.

Legal framework

Dwellings occupied by students are exempt from Council Tax [1]. For these purposes, a student is “a person who is to be regarded as undertaking a full time course of education”. [2]

Central to the appeal was the interpretation para 4 of Sch 1 to the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) Order which reads as follows:

“4 (1) A full-time course of education is […] one-
[…]
(b) which persons undertaking it are normally required by the educational establishment concerned to undertake periods of study, tuition or work experience […]-

(ii) which taken together amount in each such academic or calendar year to an average of at least 21 hours in a week”.

If some or all of the extra 30 hours per year, provided by way of  reasonable adjustment, were counted, the Appellant would satisfy the requirement in paragraph (b) (ii) and thereby be exempt from Council Tax

First instance decision

Both the Valuation Tribunal and Holroyde J held that these extra hours were not to be counted. The basis for their decision was essentially that what mattered was what was required of students, and a requirement is distinct from a recommendation.

Further, the question was what the establishment normally required, emphasising that the activities of a particular student were not relevant.

The appeal

The Appellant primarily argued that the Court had erred in concluding that on a domestic reading alone the student exemption could not be conferred upon the Appellant: the word ‘requirement’ should be treated as the practical requirements of the course instead of the idea of an instruction upon sanction, and disabled persons could form a ‘sub group’ that both the Court and the Respondent recognised para 4(1) permitted.

It was further submitted that the ECHR could be used as an interpretive tool. The Appellant’s Article 1 Protocol 1 entitlement to the ‘peaceful enjoyment of his possessions’ was to be enjoyed without discrimination as per Article 14 ECHR. In failing to recognise that disabled students are in a “significantly different situation”, the Court failed to follow the principle in Thlimmenos v Greece that like cases be treated alike, and different cases should be treated differently.  This is the fundamental basis of the principle of equality.

Judgment

The Court upheld the appeal.  Students with disabilities should not be treated the same as students without a disability because otherwise the principle of equality would be infringed. The additional study skills support is an adjustment of the MSc course itself in order to mitigate the disadvantage arising from her disability. Undertaking both elements is a requirement in her case and this needed to be recognised when considering whether she was exempt from Council Tax.

The Court allowed the appeal and remitted the case to the Valuation Tribunal.

Concluding thoughts

This Appeal was described by Lewison LJ as raising “important points of principle about the status of disabled students”. It did just that. The Court of Appeal has recognised the practical reality of what reasonable adjustments mean, and afford to, disabled students. They are a central and inherent part of their course to help them fully participate in education and required to achieve their degree. In this context, students with a disability are in a different situation and they should be treated as such.

See judgment here.

Written by Cloisters pupil Catherine Meenan.

[1] Section 4(1) Local Government Finance Act and Class N of reg.3 of the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings Order) 1992
[2] Para 4(b) Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings Order) 1992