What’s so great about flexible policies?

If there were ever a prize for “least examined ground of judicial review”, I would nominate the flexibility rule. The flexibility rule says that administrative policies must be flexible not rigid. The rule is nearly a century old. It’s part of the law of judicial review in England and Wales, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many other common law jurisdictions. It’s invoked in case after case. And yet the rule has received hardly any serious scrutiny. Judges rarely question it. Academics rarely write about it.

This neglect extends to the rule’s justification. Take the case of British Oxygen Co v Minister of Technology. The Board of Trade had a discretionary power to make grants for equipment purchases. To manage all the applications it received, the Board made a policy not to make grants for purchases of less than £25. British Oxygen had purchased a lot of oxygen cylinders for £20. The company didn’t quite fit under the policy, but it applied for a grant anyway. The Board refused, and the company went to court, arguing that the Board hadn’t taken into account the particulars of its case. The House of Lords ultimately sided with the Board. But it did so because it believed that the Board had ‘carefully considered’ the company’s application. Had the Board’s policy been rigid, British Oxygen would have won.

British Oxygen is a famous case. It’s probably the leading case on the flexibility rule. Yet the House of Lords never explains the rationale for the rule. So I wonder: what’s so great about flexibility? What’s so terrible about rigidity? What, if anything, is to be said for the flexibility rule? Continue reading