Legal: Funding

Funding is the major problem with legal challenges.  If come to court, the cases would stand a good chance of winning but, with a judicial review costing £30,000 for just two days, few so far has successfully obtained the full funding to proceed.  In an unprecedented ruling, the Legal Services Commission (LSC) have declined to pay for the challenges on the grounds that the whole community will benefit from libraries being saved and therefore a “community contribution” must be levied.  A Frequently Asked Questions from the Somerset campaign to save Watchet Library is here. The LSC went on to overrule its own appeals body to continue demanding Brent, Somerset and Isle of Wight campaigners pay towards the costs.

“Legal aid is only available to people who pass the financial eligibility criteria. In general, taxpayers would not expect legal aid to fund a case which benefits a wider community, including people who are not eligible for legal aid, without the possibility of a financial contribution from that community.” Andrew Montgomery, LSC,

The one place with the financial muscle and the legal requirement to act – the DCMS – has, so far, done nothing towards cutting councils other than sending two letters and, with one or two, having a meeting. This has resulted in the situation where taxpayers are having to pay for the legal action against the council and pay for the defence for the council.

“The message coming from the LSC and the DCMS is that communities and individuals only have rights if they can pay” (Johanna Bo Anderson, FoGL).

A challenge in Lewisham has failed due to failure to gain legal aid.  Campaigners in Brent were appealing for £5 donations.  They successfully managed to raise the full amount after a series of events involving celebrity supporters. The Isle of Wight campaign asked for any funding at all but eventually failed.  Somerset appealed for £5,000.

Legal Funding for Library Campaign Groups Fighting Closures – Solicitor Michael Imperato writes … (March 2015)

“There are times when you have to fight for your rights. Libraries are under threat across the country and campaigners should not be frightened to seek legal advice. The main concern is of course costs. However, Legal Aid (LA) may well be available.

To obtain LA in such circumstances you need a “man of straw” i.e. someone (it can be a woman) who is on low income and has no real assets. That person should have some link to the area in which the library is based but does not have to be a prominent campaigner themselves. Ideally the campaigners should instruct a Lawyer who has credibility and good contacts with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). LA will be applied for in the name of the “man of straw” to allow the matter to be further investigated. If LA is granted the Lawyer can undertake substantive work and, if need be, instruct a Barrister. Win or lose the Lawyer will be paid (albeit at a low rate!) and the nominal client has the protection of the shield of LA in that he/she cannot have any costs orders enforced against them if Court Proceedings are issued but the case is ultimately lost.

The form of Legal proceedings in such cases is known as Judicial Review (JR). Time is of the essence in a JR case so campaigning groups should line up their “man of straw” as soon as possible. It is possible the LAA will ask the campaign group to make a contribution towards the costs but unless the library of concern is in a hugely wealthy area this should be nominal and well within the reach of most groups who do a little fundraising.

Therefore, campaigners fighting library closures should not commit themselves to paying large amounts of money on legal costs. Instead they should explore the option of Legal Aid. Armed with a “man of straw” and good arguments they should be able to obtain Legal Aid to take on the might of the Local Authority.”

Michael Imperato is a solicitor at Watkins & Gunn and is recognised as one of the country’s leading public law lawyers acting for individuals and campaign groups fighting service cuts. He has advised in successful library campaigns and been involved in a number of high profile Judicial Review cases.
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