Thursday, 21 July 2011

Brent Libraries latest - day 3 in Court 2

Great to see so many people manning the barricades again on the Strand and handing out stickers to passers-by. Best slogan of the day "THE  BRENT  SIX  ARE  INNOCENT"  A man who seemed to be breakfasting on a pint of vodka advised us to fight from the heart and not the head... We stuck to coffee, then headed back to Court 2. By the way there's a David Mach sculpture of a judge made of coat hangers outside that court - not quite as striking as his coat hanger gorilla in the Summer Exhibition last year - but quite a surprise in the Royal Courts of Justice

But I digress. In court Brent's QC, Elizabeth Laing continued her submissions on the question of fairness, in particular whether the non-disclosure of the seven secret criteria and the alleged moving of the goal posts amounted to unfairness. Predictably she said they didn't, and that the goal posts were firmly fixed throughout, but that even if there was unfairness the result would have been the same (ie that Brent would still have been entitled to decide that none of the proposers had put forward a robust business case and a proposal which would have involved no cost to the council).

She went on to say that if Brent was able to have part of its statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service performed by other groups it would have to be sure that a business case was robust, and that if the groups were providing an additional service then it would have to be at no cost or the council couldn't achieve the savings which the so-called Libraries Transformation Project would deliver.

And, wait for it, the reason Brent had no criteria ready when it asked in the questionnaire
"14. Do you have additional comments or preferred course of action and your suggestion(s) on taking this forward"
was because it had no idea what those suggestions would be! It wasn't because Brent were planning to ignore or reject them all anyway [my words, not Miss Laing's]

Apparently "proposers had been told to make their best case and had been given a very full opportunity to do so". Officers then assessed the proposals using the seven secret criteria "to determine the overall robustness of the propostion". For example, in relation to Barham Park, officers decided that 84% of projected income would not be achieved by the group. All proposals failed because none (in the view of officers) had a robust business case and all involved some cost to the council. And even if the criteria had been disclosed the proposers "still couldn't have come up with a robust business case". Brent was right, in her view, to be very cautious.

As Miss Laing went on, painting a picture of Brent as a model of democratic engagement with its lucky citizens (something like the Athenian Assembly perhaps) it seemed we were straying into a parallel universe. One where labour members could vote with their consciences and for the benefit of their constituents, where partnership working was welcomed, where the council kept an open mind during a consultation...

In fact if the seven secret criteria had been disclosed "the court can be confident that there would have been requests for more detail... a never-ending dialogue", and the council has to be entitled to take a view, said Miss Laing.

Miss Laing concluded with highly technical submissions about Brent's duty under Equalities Legislation which were answered by our QC when she began her reply just after midday. Mr Justice Ouseley asked a lot of very probing questions and we felt that he was not in agreement with this part of the argument (but that's no reason for despair - as our solicitor said at the end it's only part of one of four reasons why Brent's decision should be set aside).

Helen Mountfield QC then dealt with her opponent's points on the meaning of Brent's duty to provide a library service - and submitted that a comprehensive library service cannot be provided without premises, even if some services can be offered on-line.

She also submitted that Brent had misdirected itself by failing to find out what specific needs were intended to be met by the new library service, for example, the needs of school students in overcrowded homes for a place to study. She queried why, given that 54% of the libraries budget was spent on staffing, Brent didn't look at replacing some staff with volunteers, and also queried Brent's rather perverse selection of the six libraries to be closed. For example, Neasden not only has more visitors than Kilburn but had substantial repairs in 2009, [whereas Kilburn has been waiting for repairs for years]

When Helen Mountfield finished there was a brief discussion about the next steps. The Judge indicated that it was very unlikely that he would be able to give his full judgment until October (unless by some miracle he was able to write it by the end of next week - the legal term ends on 29th July and there is then vacation during August and September). Miss Laing said Brent would need to know as soon as possible and, although reluctant, the Judge said he might be able to say which party had won by the end of the second week of August, and then provide a full reasoned judgment in October. This course is not ideal because whichever party lost would be unable to start the process of appealing without a reasoned judgment (and there's a time limit for this) and of course Brent are eager to press ahead and TRANSFORM THE LIBRARY SERVICE!

If you've read all this way you'll be wanting an assessment of our chances of success. All our solicitor would say was that he thought (as did we) that the Judge was against us on the very complex equalities argument, but as to our other arguments it was impossible to predict how he might decide. We all agreed though that Helen Mountfield had presented the case very well for us and that the Judge had engaged with all the arguments and asked relevant and searching questions. So I'm afraid we just have to wait and see (and stay optimistic)

Taking the placards away at the end of the day

And if you're only looking at this to see a cat wearing a wig I haven't found one prepared to do that yet, but here's a knitted judge which I saw today

Read about Day 1 in court here

Read about Day 2 in court here

Read the Kilburn Times article (ignoring  "Judge will give his verdict 12th August" )  here

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