Council could face “contempt of court” sanctions

Council could face “contempt of court” sanctions

By Michael Upton | 09/07/2021

Council could face “contempt of court” sanctions
Liam Harron

 

ROTHERHAM Council has been chastised by a judge over its failure to disclose information relating to its decision to shelve a booklet of CSE survivors’ stories.

RMBC pledged to buy and distribute 1,500 copies of Voice of Hope, Voices of Despair in 2015.

But months later, its editors, Liam Harron and Chrissy Meleady, were told it would not be distributed — a move that disappointed many survivors.

Mr Harron has repeatedly challenged the decision under freedom of information laws and spent the past five years trying to find out who made the ruling and why.

And he has claimed a legal victory after a judge ruled the council possibly committed contempt of court in failing to fully respond to one of his FOI requests.

Judge Mark O’Connor, presiding in the First Tier Tribunal of the General Regulatory Chamber for Information Rights, said: “I conclude that it is appropriate in furtherance of the public interest...to exercise my discretion to certify a contempt to the Upper Tribunal.”

This means the Upper Tribunal will now consider whether RMBC was in civil contempt and if any sanctions should be brought.

The FOI request in question relates to email exchanges by council officers around an internal review demanded by Mr Harron in 2016 into how RMBC had dealt with a previous request — and in particular, to a meeting he had with then-children’s services director Ian Thomas.

Mr Harron requested copies of all emails between council officers concerning the internal review and the above meeting, but the council only sent him email messages and not the related attachments.

RMBC argued in the latest round of legal dispute last month that it had complied with the FOI request and a later order by the First Tier Tribunal — but Judge O’Connor said it had failed to do so, particularly in relation to one document about the meeting with Mr Thomas.

The judge said there had not been willful refusal on the part of RMBC and noted that the council had eventually issued what it had been asked for — albeit only after Mr Harron made a new FOI request in February this year.

But he said there were grounds for the case to be referred to the Upper Tribunal.

In his ruling, Judge O’Connor said: “Civil contempt does not require an intention to interfere with the administration of justice, it is enough that the alleged contemnor was aware of the order, that the terms of the order bound the contemnor and that the contemnor disobeyed those terms.”

The judge dismissed a separate claim of contempt by Mr Harron over a request for a copy of a meeting of council officers, which the council said it could not provide as no minutes had been taken. Mr Harron said he would appeal against this decision.

Responding to the tribunal judgment, the campaigner said: “Over the years, I have heard senior councillors at RMBC talk about the importance of scrutiny.

“My personal experience, over almost six years, has been that RMBC councillors and officers have done everything possible to avoid rigorous scrutiny.”

One CSE survivor welcomed the court judgment, saying: “Our voices and experiences remain important and should be shared, no matter how much the leaders of RMBC would rather they were buried forever.”

A RMBC spokesperson said: “We are still part of a legal process and cannot comment on something that hasn’t yet concluded.”


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