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High Court rules Northants library closure plan ‘unlawful’

Campaigners fighting to save 21 libraries in Northamptonshire have won a major victory after the High Court ruled plans by the cash-strapped county council to close them were ‘unlawful’.

In a High Court judgement handed down yesterday (14 August), Mrs Justice Yip said that Northamptonshire County Council had failed to consider whether it would operate a comprehensive and efficient library service after the closures would take effect.

Mrs Justice Yip also found the council had failed to consider the impact of the closures upon vulnerable people under the Equality Act, and had failed to properly consider the outcome of a consultation that had been carried out.

‘I appreciate the real pressure the Cabinet and the defendant’s officers were operating under at the time,’ said Mrs Justice Yip in her judgement.

‘However, this did not relieve the defendant of the need to act lawfully.’

Mrs Justice Yip also found that the council failed to properly take into account the risk of a potential ‘clawback’ to the Department of Education if any of the children’s centres currently located in many of the libraries earmarked for closure, had to be closed down.

In the case of Desborough library alone, that ‘clawback’ figure was over £300,000

Northamptonshire County Council has been in financial dire straits since it issued a Section 114 notice in February, which effectively banned all new spending.

In the same month, the county council took the decision to close 21 of its 36 libraries in a bid to save money.

Caroline Barrett, a specialist lawyer for Irwin Mitchell, who represented the family who brought part of the legal challenge, commented: ‘The ruling shows that the family was right to challenge the council. Many other local residents have also supported the judicial review proceedings, and all the residents who came forward and urged the council to review and change its decision are vindicated by this ruling.

‘Our client recognises that the council is in a precarious financial position. Commissioners have been appointed to run the council’s executive functions by the Secretary of State and a raft of further cuts was announced by the council in a highly charged meeting last week.’

‘However, this is the best possible outcome for the Judicial Review and we are very grateful to Watkins & Gunn for their tireless work throughout the whole process. Without them the library users and supporters might not have been celebrating this outcome.’

Michael Imperato, partner at Watkins & Gunn and a leading expert in administrative and public law, said: ‘We are pleased that the judicial review into the closure of 21 libraries has deemed that Northamptonshire County Council did not follow due process in the decision to close the libraries under threat.

‘Councils have a difficult job in allocating funding to the many services they provide, but we argued that they must still properly balance and weigh up the consequences of closing important services such as libraries according to the law.’

‘The fight does not end here.’

Alison Richards, chartered librarian, and a director of the ‘21 Group Libraries Network’ who has been fighting to save the libraries, said: ‘While we have cause for celebration, the fight does not end here. We will be keeping a close eye on the council’s plans for the libraries now that the review is over and will continue to campaign for them to remain a vital statutory service for the people of Northamptonshire.’

The leader of Northamptonshire CC, Cllr Matthew Golby, who took over the role in March, said it is considering the judgement ‘very carefully’ and pledged to work with community groups to find a way forward.

‘As we announced earlier this month, we had already made a decision to pause the proposed changes to the local library service for further consideration and are continuing to work closely with community groups, partners and interested parties within the wider context of the council’s budget recovery programme,’ said Cllr Golby.

‘The Judge has noted that the county council is continuing these discussions with the community groups. In light of this, she has instructed that the legal parties use their best endeavours to agree all outstanding issues.

‘The county council is committed to finding a way forward that is satisfactory and achievable for all parties,’ he added.

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