Backroom boys take centre stage

Local authorities have featured prominently in recent High Court actions.

There has been Somerset County Council's bid to curb stag hunting on council-owned land; Waverley Borough Council's stance over legal ownership of a medieval gold brooch found on its land by an amateur treasure hunter; action over the employment rights of dinner ladies after their jobs were put out to competitive tendering by local authorities; and the rights of Liverpool street traders to retain their pitches.

Local authorities throughout the UK, from parish through to county councils, are wading through a mountain of on-going litigation.

This includes simple prosecutions for non-payment of car park charges through to test case High Court actions involving the rights of animal rights protesters to disrupt live animal exports through local authority controlled ports and airports. It provides a massive workload for the profession, both in and out of local authority employment, and in some areas it has shown a marked upturn.

One leading solicitor specialising in judicial review describes it as an “explosion” in local government work.

Down the years local authorities have, and continue to be, involved in a vast amount of litigation at all levels. The work covers the broadest possible spectrum and is an important source of earnings.

When it comes to outside firms, 150-year-old Sharpe Pritchard, which has specialised in local government work for over a century, leads the field. Over 50 per cent of the firm's case load comes from local authorities and they have acted for most of the country's councils.

The firm is widely regarded as the specialist in local authority litigation, and notes that it is not always the local authorities themselves who beat a trail to the courts.

Public awareness, or perceived awareness of rights in recent years, has undoubtedly fuelled the court pipe-line with increasingly litigious individuals and pressure groups taking the offensive against councils.

Sharpe Pritchard partner Jem Barnecutt says: “I would say there has been an explosion in the last five years as far as judicial review work is concerned. The number of people we have in our offices now handling judicial review matters has grown substantially in recent years.”

“Fairly static” was the term used by an Avon County Council spokesman to sum up the general litigation workload.

But he also recognised an “upsurge over recent years” in judicial review proceedings.

John Emms, solicitor to Kirklees Metropolitan Council, identified the Children Act 1989 as another development that has brought about a significant increase in his department's workload.

“That has been a growth area,” he says. “Initially everyone expected an explosion of work after the Act came in. It did not happen like that. There was a period during which people were getting used to the provisions. It took a year or so for things to move but now it has made a significant impact on the workload of our authority and, I believe, others.

“In addition to the pressure on manpower, this has also put pressure on budgets.

“Other individual areas which have seen increased activity, certainly in our region, have been those such as prosecutions for non-payment of car parking and trying to enforce housing tenancy regulations, particularly if tenants have been creating a nuisance.

“I agree also that people have become more litigious and willing to take local authorities to court.”

In some cases there is no alternative but to instruct outside specialist firms and counsel. But at Kirklees, as in many local authorities, there is a strong emphasis on the in-house team handling cases themselves.

Barnecutt says: “Local government litigation is a growth area. There has been an enormous explosion in recent years of applications for judicial review involving local authorities and covering a wide range of matters from planning and education to housing, social services and tendering processes.

“A major factor that has led to this has been the increased public awareness of legal rights. This has come about as a result of pressure groups who advise people on their rights.

“While the number of cases involving local authorities has gone up, dramatically in some areas, I would say the explosion does not so much reflect an increase in local authorities going to court – it is more an increase in their decisions being challenged and then having to defend those decisions in the face of challenge.”

Roger Pearson is a freelance journalist.