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Wednesbury unreasonableness

In English law, Wednesbury unreasonableness is unreasonableness of an administrative decision that is so extreme that courts may intervene to correct it. The term derives from Associated Provincial Picture Houses v. Wednesbury Corporation [1948] 1 KB 223, where the court stated that it would only intervene to correct a bad administrative decision on grounds of its unreasonableness if the decision was, as articulated in Council of Civil Service Unions v. Minister for the Civil Service (the GCHQ case) [1985] AC 374, 410 per Lord Diplock, "So outrageous in its defiance of logic or accepted moral standards that no sensible person who had applied his mind to the question to be decided could have arrived at it."

Facts of the case

"Associated Provincial Picture Houses" were granted a licence by the defendant local authority to operate a cinema on condition that no children under 15 were admitted to the cinema on Sundays. The claimants sought a declaration that such a condition was unacceptable, and outside the power of the Wednesbury Corporation to impose.

The court held that it could not intervene to overturn the decision of the defendant corporation simply because the court disagreed with it. To have the right to intervene, the court would have to form the conclusion that:

  • the corporation, in making that decision, took into account factors that ought not to have been taken into account, or
  • the corporation failed to take account factors that ought to have been taken into account, or
  • the decision was so unreasonable that no reasonable authority would ever consider imposing it.

The court held that the condition did not fall into any of these categories. Therefore, the claim failed and the decision of the Wednesbury Corporation was upheld. According to Lord Greene MR,

"It is true the discretion must be exercised reasonably. Now what does that mean? Lawyers familiar with the phraseology commonly used in relation to exercise of statutory discretions often use the word "unreasonable" in a rather comprehensive sense. It has frequently been used and is frequently used as a general description of the things that must not be done. For instance, 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. If he does not obey those rules, he may truly be said, and often is said, to be acting "unreasonably." Similarly, there may be something so absurd that no sensible person could ever dream that it lay within the powers of the authority. Warrington L.J. in Short v. Poole Corporation [1926] Ch. 66, 90, 91 gave the example of the red-haired teacher, dismissed because she had red hair. That is unreasonable in one sense. In another sense it is taking into consideration extraneous matters. It is so unreasonable that it might almost be described as being done in bad faith; and, in fact, all these things run into one another.

Use of this case

The test laid down in this case, in all three limbs, is known as "the Wednesbury test". The term "Wednesbury unreasonableness" is used to describe the third limb, of being so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could have decided that way. This case or the principle laid down is cited in United Kingdom courts as a reason for courts to be hesitant to interfere into the decisions of administrative law bodies.

In recent times, particularly as a result of the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998, the judiciary have resiled from this strict abstentionist approach, recognising that in certain circumstances it is necessary for them to undertake a more searching review of administrative decisions. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights now require the reviewing court to subject the original decision to "anxious scrutiny" when an administrative measure infringes a Convention right. In order to justify such an intrusion, the Respondents will have to show that it pursued a "pressing social need" and that the means employed to achieve this were proportionate to the limitation of the right.

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