"Unlawful" library closures head for court

"Unlawful" library closures head for court

Shoddy consultations perfunctorily performed and disregard for equalities legislation or the requirements of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act: such are the charges being made against councils planning library closures in a number of judicial review claims.

The claims, some of which are under way while others are being prepared, would, in the absence of any obvious action from government, appear to represent the best chance of preventing the decimation of libraries in areas where councils refuse to make concessions to protesters.

Gloucestershire and Somerset campaigners have both filed claims for judicial review against their councils' library plans in the High Court, while residents in Brent and the Isle of Wight have also begun legal action. Camden residents say they will do the same if library closure proposals are confirmed by their council on 8th June.

Legal action carries a hefty financial burden, with the cost of a two-day High Court judicial review hearing around £30,000. If a judge finds in favour of campaigners, closures and cuts can be halted immediately. Some campaigners are seeking legal aid, while others are busy fundraising. Brent is asking for £5 contributions from supporters, and it has also recruited Alan Bennett for a fund-raising event. 

Some of the issues being highlighted are a shock to all except hardened political sceptics. Legal firm Bindmans has written to Brent council, pointing out that it made a decision on 28th February to set a budget premised on the closure of six libraries even though the consultation did not end until 4th March.

According to the claim filed against Somerset and Gloucestershire, Somerset consulted for only one month, over the Christmas holiday period, while Gloucestershire made its decision about libraries while the consultation process was still ongoing.

Anger has also been voiced over the quality of consultations. Doncaster campaigners obtained details of the council's consultation through a Freedom of Information request, and campaigner Lauren Smith reported that the council invested "a mighty £474" in the process, used to inform its decision to stop funding 14 out of 26 libraries.

"Only 2,000 questionnaires were printed," she revealed on the Save Doncaster Libraries website. "No distribution costs were incurred because the questionnaires were only placed in libraries and some other council buildings, and given out by some council workers in the community. An online version of the questionnaire was buried deep on the council website, impossible to search for, and not well publicised.

"Only 2,726 people responded to the consultation (less than 1% of the population) because the council made it almost impossible for the citizens of Doncaster to participate."  Smith warned that the next round of consultation must be "infinitely more planned, effective and meaningful" if the council is to comply with its legal duties.

Persephone Books m.d. Nicola Beauman, chair of the Friends of Heath Library, called Camden's libraries consultation "slanted" after a questionnaire asked respondents to select from the following options: a 40% reduction in opening hours; the closure of Swiss Cottage central library; the closure of five smaller libraries; the closure of two larger libraries; or the closure of three medium sized libraries.

Respondents were offered the opportunity in a later question to offer any alternative suggestions they had for saving money in the service, but in its own report on the results of the consultation, the council acknowledged: "Some respondents commented that the consultation was not a fair one, and that there was not enough choice in the options and no option to say that they did not want any cuts at all." 

The Isle of Wight's proposed judicial review claim argues that the "vague and speculative proposals" for libraries to be run by local communities "fail to ensure that a comprehensive and efficient library service will remain on the island" as the 1964 Act requires, and claims that the council has failed to act in accordance with its duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

It said: "It is clear that the council has failed to properly consider the impact their decision will have on almost 20% of the current users, who will lose their library service should the decision be implemented."  The legal challenge against Somerset and Gloucestershire also claims that the councils are in breach of their obligation under the 1964 Act, ignoring the harmful effect of the closure of libraries on the vulnerable members of society. 

Councils defended themselves against the claims with pre-prepared statements. The Isle of Wight said its library strategy did meet the statutory duties, while Gloucestershire said its strategy exceeded them, with council leader Mark Hawthorne commenting: "It's frustrating to be forced into a costly legal process in a difficult financial climate." Brent Council said it was confident its libraries decision was "properly and lawfully made".

A Camden Council spokesperson told The Bookseller the survey offered a range of suggestions on ways to save money, and of 5,000 people surveyed, more than 2,000 offered their own suggestions. A Somerset Council spokesperson said it was confident it acted appropriately. Doncaster Council did not respond to requests for comment in time for The Bookseller's deadline.