Scale of cuts will make this judicial review different
(UPDATED HERE) A judicial review of Northamptonshire County Council’s decision to decommission 21 of its public libraries starts this morning.
The hearings will run over two days but a final decision could take weeks. On Friday the Judge, Mrs Justice Yip, could make a decision but is likely to reserve judgement and set a date for publication. All parties are hoping for a swift decision and it could happen during the summer months despite judges being due to take two months annual leave from 31 July.
Last month Northamptonshire County Council said it would not make any irreversible changes to its library service – such as building sales or redundancies - before the judicial review concluded. But a spokesperson said that it was continuing with all the procedures to enable it to carry out its plans as soon as possible if the judgement goes in its favour.
If the decision goes against library campaigners but they find grounds to appeal the judge’s decision, the case could be further prolonged. However, a council spokesperson said its current freeze on irreversible action was only in place for the duration of the judicial review, not for subsequent appeals.
The council has asked groups to put forward business cases for running the libraries independently and 17 of the 21 libraries have submitted plans. The deadline for submissions passed on June 25 but talks are continuing with the four libraries that have not submitted plans.
A moderating panel will assess the business proposals on August 1 and announce their decisions on August 2. Groups whose bids are rejected will have until August 9 to appeal the decisions.
Library groups whose bids are accepted will operate independently from the council - so beyond the council’s statutory control. Any libraries that have not submitted business plans or whose plans are rejected will be closed down and either sold or rented out. This means that the status of the libraries is likely to change between the hearing and the decision.
Different this time
Caroline Barrett, a solicitor in the Public Law & Human Rights Department at Irwin Mitchell, who is acting for the one of the claimants, said that uncertainty about the status of the libraries– whether they are closed down or run independently of the council - will not affect the legal arguments they are making.
She said that libraries operating beyond the council’s statutory control and without council funding could not be claimed to be discharging the council’s duty to run a comprehensive library service.
Caroline said that although many previous cases involving library closures had failed to succeed in arguing that there had been a breach of the Libraries and Museums Act 1964,which requires councils to operate a comprehensive and sufficient library service, that “The reason this case is different is because of the extent of the cuts, which are so much greater than in previous cases. We’re hoping that the comprehensive and sufficient requirement will carry greater weight here because of the numbers of libraries which have been designated for closure.”
As well as challenging the council’s decision on the basis that its library service will not meet the requirements of the 1964 Act, campaign groups, including CILIP, are concerned about the council’s procedure and decision making.
Caroline Barrett said that 13 of the libraries had children’s centres in them. “We argue that this wasn’t properly taken into account when the council carried out its consultation on which libraries to close, and when it made its eventual decision. We’re arguing that this should have been taken into account by the council because, if those children’s centres can’t continue, the council may have to pay back hundreds of thousands of pounds to the department for education under a ‘clawback’ scheme, which allows the DFE to recoup costs it has invested in local children’s centres.”
Desborough Library via Wiki Commons, JuliaC2006
Caroline said that in the case of her client’s library, Desborough, the sum due to be returned to the government if the children’s centre is closed is over £300,000 (The sale price of the library has been set at £360,000).
CILIP has given evidence to the review and has also written an open letter to the then Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, now Health Secretary, outlining the reasons why the government needs to intervene.
On Tuesday (24 July) Northamptonshire County Council announced that it faced a budget shortfall of £60-70 million for the 2018/19 financial year and announced a Section 114 Notice restricting spending to a specific list of services. It is the second Section 114 Notice the Council has issued, the first was in February when its 2017/18 budget shortfall was predicted to be around £21 million.
Yesterday, in a letter to councillors, the director of finance said that a further £54 million of savings were needed in 2019/20 financial year.
Even if the judicial review succeeds the prospect for libraries and staff will remain difficult with the Section 114 saying: “allowable expenditure permitted under the emergency protocol will include... expenditure required to deliver the council’s provision of statutory services at a minimum possible level.”
Credit: Coat of Arms via Wiki Commons