Family Instructed Specialist Lawyers At Irwin Mitchell Who Helped Force Council To Rethink Its Plans
A young girl and her family has successfully challenged Northamptonshire County Council’s plan to close 21 libraries, after a High Court Judgment was handed down today, confirming that the Council’s decision making process was unlawful.
The girl’s mother had instructed law firm Irwin Mitchell on her daughter’s behalf. Irwin Mitchell wrote to Northamptonshire County Council both before and after its final decision was made at the end of February, urging it not to close the libraries, or potentially face a Judicial Review in the High Court.
The council nevertheless announced its final decision to close the 21 libraries in February, as part of a cost cutting exercise. The local authority did not agree to review or revise its decision and therefore judicial review proceedings were issued by the legal team at Irwin Mitchell.
In her Judgment, Mrs Justice Yip DBE found that the Council ultimately made its final decision to close the libraries as a result of financial concerns, and concluded that the council did not do enough to discharge its other statutory duties at that time.
The Council had originally supported a so called ‘Option 1’ which allowed for some of the 21 libraries designated for closure to remain open as ‘community managed libraries’, with some council funding and support. However, following the receipt of a damaging KPMG report and the issuing of a s.114 notice in February 2018, both of which effectively stated that the Council would not be able to pass a lawful balanced budget, the Council very suddenly changed its mind. The Council decided to switch to an ‘Option 2’ which still provided for the closure of 21 libraries but with no support or financial provision for “community managed libraries.”
In her judgment, Mrs Justice Yip concluded that:
“The difficulty, in my judgment, came after the KMPG Advisory Notice. That Notice plainly called for a response. A lawful budget had to be set. There can be no objection in principle to the defendant taking a revised approach motivated by the financial position. I appreciate the real pressure the Cabinet and the defendant’s officers were operating under at the time. However, this did not relieve the defendant of the need to act lawfully.”
Mrs Justice Yip found that the Council failed to properly consider whether it would operate a comprehensive and efficient library service after the library closures had taken effect, that it had failed to discharge its duties when considering the impact upon vulnerable people under the Equality Act, and that it failed to properly consider the outcome of the consultation that had been carried out. These flaws were caused or exacerbated by the Council’s switch from Option 1 to Option 2.
Mrs Justice Yip also found that the council failed to properly take into account the risk of a potential ‘clawback’ to the Department of Education if any of the children’s centres currently located in many of the libraries earmarked for closure, had to be closed down. In the case of Desborough library alone, that ‘clawback’ figure was over £300,000.
Caroline Barrett, a specialist lawyer for Irwin Mitchell representing the family, which cannot be named for legal reasons, said:;
Expert Opinion“We were instructed to act on behalf of a minor, represented by her mother acting as litigation friend, with her case funded by legal aid. They sought to challenge Northamptonshire County Council’s decision to shut 21 libraries across the county.
“The closure of libraries has a disproportionate effect upon children and vulnerable people and our client’s family was extremely concerned that she would not have access to the same library provision as her elder siblings. Local schools also relied upon the local library services.
“The ruling shows that the family was right to challenge the council. Many other local residents have also supported the judicial review proceedings, and all the residents who came forward and urged the council to review and change its decision are vindicated by this ruling.
“Our client recognises that the council is in a precarious financial position. Commissioners have been appointed to run the Council’s executive functions by the Secretary of State and a raft of further cuts was announced by the Council in a highly charged meeting last week.
“Nevertheless, this ruling confirms that all Councils, regardless of their financial position, simply must comply with their statutory and common law duties. This is in principle with the rule of law. The Council has duties to its local residents and it must continue to make decisions in a lawful manner.” Caroline Barrett - Senior Associate Solicitor
Given the council’s financial position the judge has allowed the parties time to consider which decisions made by the Council should be quashed by the High Court and what relief should be granted. If there can be no agreement on the terms of relief, a further hearing will be listed by the Court to consider next steps.
Expert Opinion“We urge the council to use this as an opportunity to ensure they propose new plans which reflect the needs of the county’s residents and are in compliance with their statutory duties.” Caroline Barrett - Senior Associate Solicitor
The family that is being represented by Irwin Mitchell makes extensive use of one of the 21 libraries that was set to close, attending playgroups and children’s centre activities.
The minor’s mother and litigation friend, said: “We are absolutely delighted with the judgment. We have fought hard against the proposed unfair cuts to our much loved library service.
“The closures would have had a devastating impact on families like ourselves, but also on the most vulnerable people within our community.
“The libraries offer us so much more than just books. They offer residents access to the relevant district council’s one-stop shop, blue badge and bus pass renewal, children’s services and plenty more services that residents rely on.
“It is well-known that the council is in a difficult financial position but it simply did not think about the impact of these cuts, and the effect that they would have had on local communities.”