16 Nov 2011

Library campaigners win legal challenge

A judge rules that Somerset and Gloucestershire county councils failed to take account of their “equalities duties” when pushing through plans to close libraries.

Somerset County Council wants to withdraw funding for 11 libraries while Gloucestershire County Council wants to close 10 in a bid to save money. A number of campaigners from Somerset and Gloucestershire will be at London’s Royal Courts of Justice for the judgment.

A judge allowed challenges against plans to close libraries in Gloucestershire and Somerset in a ruling which follows a hearing at the High Court in Birmingham in September.

Judge McKenna, sitting as a deputy high court judge, told a court packed with campaigners he had concluded that both claims succeeded. He stressed that they had succeeded on “only one of three grounds”.

Daniel Carey, of Public Interest Lawyers which is bringing the case, said after the decision was given that the judge had ruled that “both councils had failed to take account of their equalities duties when pushing through the cuts”.

The judge is considering what “relief” should be granted to the claimants in the light of his ruling. Lawyers hailed the decision as “a victory for campaigners whose opposition to the councils’ library cuts had been ignored”.

Failure to comply

Public Interest Lawyers said that for more than a year campaigners had been “pointing to the disproportionate effect that the cuts would have on disadvantaged groups such as the elderly, single mothers and the disabled”.

The judge, they added, had “ruled comprehensively in their favour”. Referring to the claimants’ case that there was a failure to comply with public sector equality duties, the judge said such duties “impose important and onerous burdens on public authorities”.

He added: “In carrying out all of their functions they must have due regard to the statutory equality needs. In my judgment, on the preponderance of the evidence, no such due regard was had in substance.

“In order to discharge their respective duties Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) and Somerset County Council (SCC) should have undertaken a sufficiently thorough information gathering exercise and then properly analysed that information.

“In this case I conclude that both GCC and SCC failed to comply with that obligation.”

In another library closure battle, campaigners in Brent, north west London, who are fighting to save six “treasured” libraries, are awaiting a court of appeal decision in their case.

Three judges have been urged to overturn a decision of a high court judge who rejected the claims of residents that the closure decision was “fundamentally flawed and unlawful”.