Keith Coughtrie is an experienced member of our Public Law team and he was among the shortlisted finalists at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year (LALY) Awards 2016.
Keith has expertise in matters relating to public and administrative legislation, as well as legal issues relating to the Gypsy and Traveller community. He assists families and individuals who are seeking a place to live, whether in planning proceedings or through homelessness legislation.
Keith has represented Gypsies and Travellers for over 15 years and gained the trust and confidence of this underprivileged community alongside a formidable reputation. He is known for his tireless determination in high profile and smaller enforcement cases alike.
He was previously involved in the long-running legal dispute centred on Dale Farm, Essex – a case which attracted widespread media coverage.
Following that case, he represented Mary Flynn, among the residents who had been evicted from the site. In a legal battle against Basildon Borough Council, it was argued that Ms Flynn would be placed at serious risk of death by the change in circumstances. The case was pursued to the European Court of Human Rights.
Local authorities have a huge discretion to enter land and take any steps they deem are required by a planning enforcement notice. This includes forcible eviction and destruction of property. These decisions are often populist and politically motivated. They can be exercised without an independent tribunal’s assessment of the merit of the case and in particular without any judicial scrutiny other than by way of judicial review.
Keith demonstrates time and again that these decisions to take direct action are frequently made in breach of the public sector equality duty and fail to consider the welfare and personal circumstances of individuals including children, the elderly and the disabled. Unless there is a legal challenge brought, these breaches occur routinely without interference.
He has worked alongside the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, encouraging correspondence to be sent to local authorities reminding them of their legal obligations, for example, in one case, 39 children were living on the site, the majority of whom attended the local schools.
He advocates that instead of direct action, local authorities should take a more proportionate approach to a technical breach of planning control, and use a statutory power to apply for an injunction. Where homes, families and communities can be ripped apart, and the vulnerable left helpless, he argues that it should be for the Court to decide whether an eviction is proportionate.
Keith is known for considering all avenues and pursuing innovative points of law to support his clients, such as arguing that local authorities have failed to make adequate provision of sites, novel points under the Equality Act and arguments concerning the best interest of children.
With his persistence he is changing the legal landscape and securing better protection for the Gypsy and Traveller community.
The battle continues and Keith is concerned that the issue will become more pressing in that the changes to national planning policy has made it tougher for Gypsies and Travellers to get planning permission.
His achievements are against a background of diminishing legal aid. Not only have there been significant reductions to the scope of legal aid in this area, but the practical difficulties of the additional bureaucracy (including CCMS) cannot be underestimated when undertaking urgent work for clients who are at crisis point and often illiterate. His determination and sheer hard work enable his clients to access justice.
Keith’s personal qualities undoubtedly underpin his success and reputation as an outstanding lawyer. He is compassionate and gives meticulous thought to everything he does.
Allen v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  EWHC 2463 (Admin)
This was a successful challenge to the decision of the Secretary of State to refuse planning permission because insufficient reasons were given for the site which the Secretary of State said they could move to.
Stevens v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  EWCA Civ 214
The Claimant Romani Gypsy had applied for temporary planning consent to station her mobile homes on her land in the Green Belt. The application was refused by the local council and a planning inspector dismissed an appeal. The High Court rejected a challenge to that decision. The claimant sought permission to bring a further appeal contending that the inspector had failed to apply the approach to the best interests of the claimant’s children required by the judgments in ZH (Tanzania) which had been delivered after her decision. The Court of Appeal refused permission. It was held that the inspector had had the interests of the children “in the forefront of her mind” precisely as the Supreme Court had later held was required (in ZH).
Solihull MBC v Noah Burton  EWHC 971 (QB), JPL 1280
A case concerning an application to vary an injunction which required Romani Gypsies to vacate an unauthorised development. The Court commented upon the approach to be adopted following the House of Lords judgment in ZH (Tanzania) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  2 AC 166 when deciding whether or not to vary an injunction already in force.
Stokes v UK  (Application No 65819/10)
The Applicant claimed that her rights protected by Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention had been violated in circumstances where she had not been provided with full reasons for the decision taken to evict her from a local authority run site. The parties reached a friendly settlement and the UK agreed to pay the Applicant the sum of 2000 Euros.
Stevens v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government & Guildford BC  EWHC 792 (Admin)
Gypsies – an unsuccessful challenge brought in respect of a planning inspector’s decision to refuse temporary planning permission for a Gypsy site. The Claimant argued that the Inspector had failed to take account of the best interests of the children in accordance with the principles laid down by Baroness Hale in the Supreme Court decision in ZH (Tanzania) v SSHD  UKSC 4. The Judge accepted that the principles were relevant but concluded that on the facts the Inspector had complied with those principles.
Collins v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government & Fylde BC  EWHC 2760 (Admin)
A statutory appeal to the refusal of planning permission which concerned the scope and application of children's best interests. The Judge said the Planning Inspector had taken into account the best interests of the children. This has been given permission to Appeal in the Court of Appeal.
Linfoot v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government & Chorley BC  EWHC 3514 (Admin)
A successful statutory review challenge brought against a decision of a planning inspector to refuse a Gypsy family temporary planning permission – the Secretary of State has conceded that his inspector's decision was unlawful. Chorley BC did not agree and the case was heard in Manchester Admin Court.
Julie Smith v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government & Doncaster MBC  EWHC 963 (Admin)
Gypsies – an unsuccessful challenge brought in respect of a planning inspector's decision to refuse temporary planning permission for a Gypsy site.
Medhurst v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government EWHC 3576 (Admin)
Gypsy planning case concerning the meaning of Gypsies and Travellers (Gypsy status) for the purposes of planning law and whether the definition in Circular 1/2006 was incompatible with Article 8 of the Convention.
Wingrove and Brown v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government & Mendip DC  EWHC 1476 Admin
Gypsies – a challenge to an Inspector's interpretation of the meaning of Gypsies and Travellers laid down by the government in Circular 1/06 was dismissed.
R (Mary Michelle Sheridan and others) v Basildon BC  EWHC 2938 (Admin)
Dale Farm. Unsuccessful judicial review challenge against the council's decision to take direct action to evict Irish Travellers from their plots on the site. The case was heard at first instance by Ouseley J and Lord Justice Sullivan refused a renewed application for permission made to the Court of Appeal.
Patrick Egan v Basildon Borough Council  EWHC 2416 (QB)
A case involving the Dale Farm site in which the Court considered the extent to which enforcement notices gave the Council the power to take direct action to remove unauthorised development on the site.
Brent London Borough Council v Stokes  EWCA Civ 626
Irish Traveller case – the Court of Appeal refused an application for permission to appeal against the decision of Mr Justice King to uphold the County Court's decision to grant possession of land in circumstances where it had been decided that the Appellant's 'gateway (b)' defence did not raise seriously arguable grounds to dispute the claim for possession.