One of the last English local authorities to offer free home care faces a judicial review over its recent decision to introduce charges for the service.
A local campaign group is seeking to overturn Hammersmith and Fulham Council's policy of charging users means-tested fees of up to £10 an hour - with an option of increasing this to £12.40 - before it comes into force on 1 January 2009.
Solicitors from the Public Law Project, acting on behalf of Hammersmith and Fulham Coalition against Community Care Cuts, will challenge the west London borough's decision on two grounds: that councillors were allowed a vote on the issue before the findings of an equality impact assessment had been made available and that the Conservative-controlled executive broke a promise made in 2006 not to introduce charges.
The council promised to "vigorously defend" its decison and has until 15 September to file its response to the High Court. After that, the court will decide whether a full judicial review is necessary.
Kevin Caulfield, chair of the campaign group, praised the council for its "fine tradition of supporting older and disabled people". Until the decision was taken in June, it was believed to have been one of only 3% of English councils to offer free home care.
But he said the fees would force some vulnerable service users into poverty, and prevent others from accessing vital services.
The group's solicitor, Ravi Low-Beer, said the council broke its legal obligation to promote disability, race and gender equality by failing to complete and disclose the results of an equality impact assessment on the plan before the decision was taken to back charging. He added that the charges would particularly affect women and people from ethnic minorities.
Antony Lillis, the council's cabinet member for community services, said charging for services "is not a prospect the council welcomes and is a conclusion we have reached after much consultation and deliberation".
He added: "Our charging system is in accordance with the government's guidelines and means that only people who are assessed as being able to afford it are charged."