No such thing as a sure-fire win

The legal department at Derbyshire County Council was caught out by the national media furore which declared the centuries-old tradition of displaying goods outside a greengrocers illegal.

The department thought its magistrates court action against Ilkeston greengrocer Brian Godfrey, after he ignored a request to stop displaying his stock on the pavement, was a routine matter.

Most local authority lawyers would have taken a similar view. The rights of local authorities to stop shopkeepers spreading on to the pavement outside their premises seemed backed by a wealth of case law.

Certainly, council solicitors Stephen Brent and Jill Anderson had no way of anticipating the action would lead them to the High Court. However, the council had no alternative after magistrates flew in the face of case law and acquitted 54-year-old former-miner Godfrey.

That decision, backed by enthusiastic press coverage, sent ripples of concern through local government circles way beyond Derbyshire.

Many other authorities with similar actions pending encouraged Derbyshire to fight the decision at the High Court. If the magistrates' ruling stood, the other authorities took the view that Godfrey's acquittal would be used against them in similar proceedings.

However, at the High Court, Mr Justice Hidden ruled that the magistrates had got it wrong and sent the matter back with instructions to find in favour of the council.

The legal department of Derbyshire County Council still finds it hard to credit that the action could become the subject of such media attention and be given virtual test case status in the newspaper columns.

"We did not think the case posed any problem," Anderson said. "There was a recent case which was almost identical which backed our action. Yet the magistrates chose to distinguish between the two."

She says the combination of the magistrates' decision and the extensive press coverage left the council with no alternative but to go to the High Court.

"We had to get the matter clarified. There really was no alternative," she says.

But she added that although the council had always been confident it was backed by solid case law, the Godfrey case must serve as a reminder that however definite it might appear, no case is a sure-fire certainty when it reaches court – the magistrates' decision proved that.