Was the Supreme Court right to overrule the leading village greens case of R (Beresford) v Sunderland City Council (2003) in its recent judgment in R (Barkas) v North Yorkshire County Council (2014; pdf)? There is a strong argument to suggest Lord Neuberger et al have overstepped the mark in declaring Beresford no longer good law – in a gross breach of the rules of judicial precedent on which our law relies. The result will be that it will be far more difficult from now on to have land designated as village greens, protecting it from development.
The Supreme Court is supposed to accept earlier judgments of the same court, even if the current incumbents think they are wrong, unless there are very good reasons not to, such as a material change in circumstances or strong public interest. That allows for legal certainty, so people can act according to the known law, as examined and approved by the highest court in the land, rather than seek to rerun a similar case a few years later in the hope that the judicial dice might fall a different way. That is the principle that Neuberger et al have thrown to the four winds in disapproving Barkas.
There are supposed to be limitations on the rare occasions when the Supreme Court can breach precedent and overrule itself. In particular the overruling must help to resolve the case before them. That was not so in Barkas. Lower courts and the Supreme Court itself had all resolved the case (rejecting the application to turn a piece of land in Whitby into a village green) by distinguishing it from Beresford – different facts, different law. There was no requirement to then go on to overrule Beresford – indeed the rule is that they should not go on to overrule the earlier case. But the Supreme Court Justices did so anyway.