The landmark case of Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation [1948] 1 KB 223 is crucial for law students studying administrative law and judicial review. This case introduces the concept of “Wednesbury unreasonableness,” a pivotal standard in assessing the rationality of decisions made by public authorities.

  • In the case of Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation [1948] 1 K.B. 223, it was held that the court would only interfere with the decision of a public authority, the authority having considered relevant factors, where its decision is so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could ever have come to it.

Facts of the Case

  • Under the Sunday Entertainments Act 1932, D had authority to open cinemas subject to such conditions as they thought fit to impose.
  • C’s cinema was licensed to operate on Sundays, subject to the condition that no children younger than 15 could enter (regardless of adult accompaniment).
  • C challenged D’s condition through judicial review, arguing that the decision was unreasonable and beyond D’s power.


  • Was D’s condition unreasonable, and did that justify the court interfering with D’s authority on this matter?

Held by the Court of Appeal

  • Finding for D, that Parliament had given D discretion to set the conditions for the licence. That discretion may be exercised differently according to their honest and reasonably held opinion. It was not the court’s job to substitute its own opinion.
  • The court could only interfere with D’s decision where the decision is so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could ever have come to it. In the present case, D’s condition was within the reasonable decisions one could make. C’s appeal was dismissed.

Lord Green M.R.

  • C’s argument was that D’s condition was unreasonable and that in consequence it was beyond D’s power to impose. C’ contention is based on a misconception as to the effect of this Act in granting this discretionary power to D.
  • The courts must always remember that this is an executive act and not a judicial act. Conditions under this Act may be imposed within D’s discretion without limitation. The Act provides no appeal from D’s decision.
  • The court can only interfere with an act of executive authority if it is shown that the authority has contravened the law. Whenever this is alleged, the court must substitute its own opinion for that authority. It is only concerned with seeing whether or not the proposition is made good.
  • “It is true that the discretion must be exercised reasonably…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 Corp gave the example of the red-haired teacher, dismissed simply 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” [229].
  • D’s condition was a decision a reasonable authority could make. The well-being and physical and moral health of children is a matter the authority can have in mind. They have not failed to consider all relevant factors. Justifying the court’s interference requires something far more overwhelming than a decision where other authorities have imposed stricter conditions, and the courts have upheld them.

Significance of the Case on the Development of the Law

The Wednesbury case has profoundly influenced administrative law, particularly in how courts review the reasonableness of administrative decisions:

  1. Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service [1985]: Known as the GCHQ case, it extended the principles of Wednesbury by outlining that national security could justify excluding judicial review, emphasizing the flexibility in applying the unreasonableness standard depending on context.
  2. R v Secretary of State for the Environment, ex parte Nottinghamshire County Council [1986]: This case applied Wednesbury principles to hold that the Secretary of State’s decision was so unreasonable that no reasonable authority would ever consider it, highlighting the application of the unreasonableness test to substantive decisions.
  3. R (Daly) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2001]: This case evolved the Wednesbury principles further by integrating proportionality into the review process, especially relevant under the Human Rights Act 1998, showing the gradual shift from pure unreasonableness to a more nuanced proportionality approach.

Exam Questions and Answers

Below you will find answers to questions that are most commonly asked based on this case.

How has the interpretation of “Wednesbury unreasonableness” changed in recent years with the evolving nature of administrative law?

The interpretation of “Wednesbury unreasonableness” has evolved to adapt to the more rigorous standards required by the Human Rights Act 1998. Originally, a decision was considered unreasonable only if it was so absurd that no sensible person could ever dream that it lay within the powers of the authority. However, in recent years, the courts have started to merge the traditional Wednesbury review with a proportionality test, particularly in cases involving human rights implications. This shift was notably recognized in R (Daly) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2001], where the House of Lords endorsed a move towards a more intense review process when fundamental rights are at stake, signaling a gradual shift from irrationality to proportionality as a ground for challenging administrative decisions.

What are the current limits of judicial review concerning “Wednesbury unreasonableness” in UK law after the incorporation of the Human Rights Act 1998?

Since the incorporation of the Human Rights Act 1998, the limits of judicial review concerning “Wednesbury unreasonableness” have been increasingly influenced by the proportionality principle. While the traditional Wednesbury test remains applicable for most administrative actions, decisions that affect fundamental rights are now often subject to a proportionality analysis. This means that the courts not only assess whether a decision was irrational or unreasonable but also whether it was proportionate in achieving a legitimate aim. This dual approach ensures a balance between deference to administrative discretion and the protection of individual rights. For example, in cases affecting privacy, expression, or other human rights, courts may apply a more stringent standard than the classic Wednesbury threshold.

How does “Wednesbury unreasonableness” compare to the standard of proportionality used in European Union law?

“Wednesbury unreasonableness” and the standard of proportionality used in European Union law differ significantly in their application and intensity of review. The Wednesbury test, traditionally used in UK administrative law, sets a high threshold for judicial intervention, only applicable when a decision is so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could have made it. In contrast, the proportionality standard in EU law involves a more detailed examination, requiring that measures taken by public authorities are appropriate, necessary, and the least restrictive means to achieve a legitimate objective. This EU approach allows for a more nuanced review of the balance between the means used and the aim pursued, often leading to closer scrutiny of administrative decisions com