Court rules library closures unlawful on 16th November 2011

Photo of Court rules library closures unlawful

Published by Lizzy Davies guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 16 November 2011 18.42 GMT http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/nov/16/court-challenges-against-library-closures

Campaigners attempting to stop the closure of their local libraries won a surprise victory in the high court on Wednesday when a judge ruled that the decision to axe services in Gloucestershire and Somerset was unlawful and should be quashed.

In his judgment on a judicial review brought by campaigners in the two counties, Judge Martin McKenna found that local authorities had failed to comply with their public sector equality duties when pushing through the closures.

To the gasps and muted exclamations of the campaigners sitting at the back of the court, he ordered the councils to revisit their plans. Failure to do so, he said, would send the wrong message to other councils.

“It is important to the rule of law to give due regard to these issues of equality,” added McKenna, before refusing the defence permission to appeal. Gloucestershire and Somerset county councils could still lodge a request with the court of appeal.

That prospect did not dampen campaigners’ joy. “We’re really pleased. Finally we have had proper scrutiny of the councils’ plan. But we shouldn’t have had to go through this,” said Johanna Anderson, founder of Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries.

Speaking on behalf of the equivalent Somerset group, Peter Murphy said he and his fellow campaigners felt “completely vindicated”. “The big society cannot be used to justify disenfranchising vulnerable individuals from the services on which they rely.”

Gloucestershire-based author Joanna Trollope told the BBC she was thrilled with the ruling, and thought it would be “pretty brutal” of the authorities to forge ahead with the closures.

Although ruling that the councils had not breached the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, and had not rushed through a consultation process on the closures, McKenna did believe they had failed to take account of their equality duties – an omission which he said amounted to “a substantive … defect”.

“In order to discharge their respective duties Gloucestershire county council (GCC) and Somerset county council (SCC) should have undertaken a sufficiently thorough information-gathering exercise and then properly analysed that information. In this case I conclude that both GCC and SCC failed to comply with that obligation,” the judge found.

For the campaigners, Helen Mountfield QC had argued that the withdrawal of funding from 10 libraries in Gloucestershire and 11 in Somerset would have a disproportionate effect on those most vulnerable in society. The councils had not properly assessed the disproportionately severe impact their closure would have on the poor, elderly and disabled, she said.

“Sending councils back to the drawing board would be a good thing,” she said on Wednesday, urging the judge to put a halt to all planned cuts and closures to library services. She also said the campaigners should have all their costs covered in spite of having only won on one of the three main grounds – a request McKenna granted.

James Goudie QC had argued that the authorities had acted properly and that their decisions had been taken with care. He urged the judge not to quash the closures, in part because to do so would cause “further delay and further uncertainty” for library employees and their users.

He told the campaigners that they may have scored an “own goal” and that, when councils came to revisit their budgetary dilemmas, it was at least “highly likely” that they would do the same again. “They might actually be more draconian from the point of view of those challenging libraries’ closures than the decisions made months ago,” he said.

But his words did little to worry those campaigners who had fought against the cuts since February.

Daniel Carey of Public Interest Lawyers said: “Today’s high court ruling sends a clear message not only to Gloucestershire and Somerset, but to every council in the country, that catering for the needs of the vulnerable must be at the heart of any decision to cut important services such as libraries.”

The message is expected to be heard most clearly in Brent, north-west London, where campaigners are fighting to save six libraries. Having had their judicial review rejected by a high court judge, they have taken their battle to the court of appeal and are now awaiting a decision.

In response to the ruling, both councils said it proved that they had carried out suitable consultations and had not breached the 1964 act. “However, the judge found we needed to do more with regards to our responsibilities under the Equalities Act and this is a huge disappointment as we take our duties here extremely seriously,” said Pete Bungard, chief executive of the GCC.

“With hindsight, we approached this as a transfer to the community rather than a statutory closure where a more thorough approach would have been taken.”

Councillor Ken Maddock, leader of the SCC, said the decision to close the libraries had been taken “after great deliberation and with great reluctance”.

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