Two local residents represented by Public Interest Lawyers, Lucy Williams and Nicholas Dorrington, have today succeeded in a High Court judicial review challenging the decision of Surrey County Council to remove all paid staff from 10 community libraries, leaving them to be run entirely by volunteers. The case has been part funded by the Legal Services Commission with a substantial fund raising effort and financial contribution by the Surrey Libraries Action Movement (SLAM). Judgment was handed down at 10am this morning.
The Council’s decision, now declared to be unlawful, was taken following a ‘Public Value Review’ of the authority’s library service. On 27 September 2011, the Cabinet decided that "library provision in 10 areas be delivered via the community partnership model." The community partnership model involves the Council providing the library building and stock but all staffing being provided by local volunteers. The decision was challenged on the basis that the Council had failed to discharge its public sector equality duties under the Equality Act 2010. The Act required the Council to give rigorous regard to how removing paid staff would affect the accessibility of libraries to protected groups, including children, elderly, and disabled persons. Witness statements in support of the claim argued that paid staff were crucial in providing assistance to vulnerable users. Paid staff were able to develop knowledge, both of the library service and its users, which community volunteers spending a few hours in the library could not be expected to provide. In advising the Cabinet on 27 September 2011, Officers had simply made short reference to the need for training of volunteers, without any analysis of what training might be needed and whether it would even be possible for training to mitigate the impact of removing paid staff.
Mr Justice Wilkie, who heard the claim over two days on 19 and 20 March 2012, held that:
"In my judgment, the reliance by the Defendant on the same bland assertions that training would be required and monitored, as had been contained in the February report, fell substantially short of enabling the cabinet members to give due regard to this obvious equality issue at the stage the process had reached in September."
And that: "[a]ccordingly in my judgment the claimants have succeeded in establishing that the decision of the 27th September 2011 was unlawful."
The Judge will decide whether to make an Order quashing the 27th September decision following a short hearing to take place in the next court term (likely to be in May).
Nick Dorrington said today:
I am delighted with the result and I hope that it reminds senior county councillors that they should not forget that we employ them to provide efficient services and, as importantly, represent us the electorate. It is a great disappointment that the council has
wasted thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money trying to ignore and ride roughshod over public criticism and outrage, defending the indefensible.
Lucy Williams said today:
I am absolutely over the moon with the result. Libraries are such an important part of local communities and for Surrey County Council to remove funding for library staff would have had a terrible impact on the local area. Everyone is painfully aware that cuts needs to be made at the moment, but I hope that councils across the country will think twice before trying to implement them in sectors that are so vital not only to community groups, but also integral to education, promoting literacy and the joy of reading.
Phil Shiner, Solicitor, of Public Interest Lawyers, said today:
This is a fantastic result for the Claimants as well as a sharp reminder to local authorities up and down the country that a need for budget cuts is not an excuse for cutting local services without careful consideration of how such cuts will impact upon vulnerable groups. In this case, it was clearly unlawful for Surrey County Council to remove all paid staff from 10 libraries whilst dismissing the impact of such a change with vacuous assertions that all problems will be cured by training for volunteers.
BBC News - Surrey library volunteer plan ruled unlawful by High Court
ITV News - Volunteer run library plans "unlawful"
Press Association - Volunteer libraries ruled unlawful
Guardian - Volunteer-run libraries unlawful, high court rules
The Independant - 'Big Society' libraries under threat as High Court rules council's volunteer scheme is unlawful