Bypassing a legal roadblock

The legal team undoubtedly played a major role in steering the recent case, of a Norfolk couple whose luxury home at Wroxham was blighted by bypass plans, back before the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

But, in what is regarded as a case that breaks new ground in respect of the legal right to overturn the Parliamentary Ombudsman's decisions, credit for the victory should go far wider than just the legal team, according to planning and local government specialist Barry Payton. Payton, who was led in court by QC Charles George, played a major role in masterminding the argument on behalf of Maurice and Audrey Balchin, the couple at the centre of the action, and he says the case was a classic example of dedicated teamwork.

More than that, though, it was also an example of an MP taking a hands-on role in an action in a way that went "way beyond the call of duty."

And he says the dedication shown by MP Michael Lord, who took up the case on behalf of the Balchins, served as an "inspiration" to them all.

"He has set a standard of service which serves as an example to every other member of Parliament," says Payton.

The case centred on the waterside home of the Balchins, which was blighted after an announcement by Norfolk County Council that they intended to build a bypass that would be sited just 18ft from the Balchin's bedroom window.

The result of the announcement was that the property was rendered virtually worthless, loans taken out on the security of it were called in, and Mr Balchin, a builder, lost his business. Ultimately, the case ended up before the Parliamentary Ombudsman. It was taken to him by Michael Lord and it was argued that the Transport Secretary had been guilty of maladministration in confirming the road orders relating to the bypass without first seeking an assurance from the County Council that the Balchins would be given adequate compensation. The Ombudsman rejected the claim, however.

But now, in a case of major significance – it is the first time there has ever been a successful challenge to the decision of the Parliamentary Ombudsman – Mr Justice Sedley has held that the matter must go back to be reconsidered.

That is still far from being a ruling that guarantees the Balchins the pay-out they consider themselves entitled to. But in legal terms it is a milestone. "The result of this case technically is that the Ombudsman's decision has been quashed. This means that Michael Lord's complaint of maladministration is still outstanding and must be decided afresh," says Payton.

"The Ombudsman has to issue a decision saying, firstly, whether he agrees that there has been maladministration, and obviously in this he will be guided by the judgment of the court.

"Secondly, he must decide, if he does find maladministration has taken place, whether that maladministration caused injustice. If he says 'yes' to that he must then either assess compensation for the Balchins or devise a formula to calculate compensation.

"The decision to quash the Parliamentary Ombudsman's findings has to be regarded as the crossing of a major hurdle.

"Prior to this there had been one case in which it had been held that decisions of the Parliamentary Ombudsman could be open to challenge in this way, but this is the first time it has happened."