13 Oct 2011

Failed by the High Court: A Sad Day for Brent and Our Libraries

Sketch of Court 2 on 19 July this year, Royal Courts of Justice - The people of Brent versus Brent Council. (S Ali)

Today the People of Brent learned the sad news that they had not succeeded in their High Court battle to overturn the Council's plan to axe half of the borough's libraries (background).

I could sense the anxiety amongst my fellow Brentonians before the judgment was delivered. I reassured my neighbours that we did not know the result yet, but it seemed most of them did not dare believe that we would hear good news today, simply to protect against greater disappointment of a frustrated hope.

The truth is that whilst Justice Ouseley's judgment must be respected for what it is, his written judgment strikes me as a piece of legal casuistry in the main. Of course, points of law must be attended to, but in their attention one is always left with a judgment to make, whether on balance of probability or the spirit of the law as drafted. Even the most impartial observer could be left wondering whether arguments had been won, as opposed to counterassertions (in this case the Council's) simply affirmed by the judge.

The Judgment (Case No. CO/4957/2011) summarises the main pieces of law in contention then itemises the grounds which Justice Ouseley takes to have not been demonstrated in law:

1. Unlawfully ignoring the role which community libraries and groups could play in fulfilling the s7 duties (Public libraries Act 1964)
2. Unlawful failure to consult
3. An unlawful failure to assess needs
4. Breach of the public sector equality duty

However, many of the judgments appear, in reason, to be question-begging:

"I cannot see that it is unlawful for the Council to start the process by warning the groups, as in effect it did, that its approach would be that alternatives had to achieve the same level of savings for the same level of service as the Council's own proposals." (para 77)

But no piece of law is going to circumscribe consultation down to this level of detail. The question is whether this was a fair constraint, to effectively debar solutions that did not conform to a pre-decided lowest common denominator budget.

Later still, the Judge writes: "The Council's approach was entirely consistent with the requirement in s7(2) that the provision of library services by other menas be "appropriate"." (para. 80)

That sounds more like an assertion than an argument.

By some textual anomaly, moreover, the following appears in the introduction without any qualification, simply stated as fact, not as an argument from our side:

"The public consultation had been unfair since the Council had not told the public what it needed to know about the running costs of libraries so that groups could make informed responses in support of voluntary arrangements, and had not been told the basis upon which the Council would appraise their alternative proposals." (para. 4)

Yes, I agree that this is true Justice Ouseley.

Overall, I am bound to say, this was a very disappointing and dispiriting judgment. I salute the people of Brent for bringing this case. My fear now is that Brent Council will feel itself emboldened in this course of action, obviously they will feel vindicated, but the reality is that they have lost the confidence of the people they are meant to serve.

Let the People of Brent unite in their common endeavour to safeguard our community from this assault on our local libraries. We can despair, but we shall also regroup - with the same practical intelligence and determination we have already shown, to find a better way forward.

This is a sad day for Brent; but also a day on which the Citizens of Brent who give a damn about lifelong education and protecting the vulnerable from abandonment should hold their heads up high. Just not in the High Court.

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