Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Royal We

A month ago the MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Jonathan Edwards, put down an Early Day Motion in Parliament to air concerns about the public funding of libel cases by local authorities, and the Western Mail carried a report on it here. The newspaper also published an editorial saying that the use of public funds by councils to bring libel actions was a step too far. The editorial was not published online, but the text of it can be found on Jonathan Edwards' website here.

What triggered this of course was the use of taxpayers' money by the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James, to counter-sue blogger Jacqui Thompson.

Nearly four weeks later, Mr James has put pen to paper to set out his side of the story once again in the latest stage of his victory parade which has featured articles on the council's website, the council's staff newsletter and the Carmarthen Journal as well as what can only loosely be described as an interview on Radio Carmarthenshire. Who knows, perhaps we can also look forward to yet more on this subject in a future edition of the council's newspaper, Carmarthenshire News.

The Western Mail piece takes up most of a page (it is not yet available online) and repeats most of what we have heard so many times before. This was a "six year unlawful campaign of harassment, defamation and intimidation", Mr James tells readers.

Well, no it wasn't, but there is no point in going through the detail of the case now. Suffice it to say that if justice is to be served, the case will go to appeal and the verdict will be overturned.

Mr James goes on to say that all three political groups on the council, and "all three group leaders in particular were of the view that this individual had gone too far, [and] that the council should defend itself vigorously".

The three group leaders are Kevin Madge (Labour), Pam Palmer (Independent) and Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid Cymru). As far as we know none of them has made any sort of public statement about the case or said whether they supported the use of public money to bring libel actions.

There is something distinctly disturbing about an unelected official telling the public what the views of elected representatives are. Perhaps readers may like to write to the three leaders to get an opinion at first-hand.

Mr James then says that the case re-affirms where the law has been for some time to allow public bodies such as councils to indemnify "one of its employees" to bring an action for defamation.

The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) Order 2006 specifically prohibits indemnities to bring libel actions, but that minor inconvenience is overlooked.

The most breathtaking claims are left to the end, where the chief executive turns to the subject of costs. Whatever the final bill is, he says, the likely cost to the council will run into "tens of thousands of pounds"(hundreds of thousands may be the real total) - "money which could and should have been spent on schools, elderly care, highways, leisure, libraries, etc."

No expense was spared by Mr James in fighting this case:
  •  The council engaged some of the most expensive legal expertise in Britain.
  •  Teams of very highly paid people shuttled backwards and forwards between London and Carmarthen for more than a year
  • Mr James and his entourage travelled first class to London and back
  • The entourage included the council's press manager and other "essential" personnel
  • The council's limos were pressed into service to convey Mr James and his entourage to Swansea in order to catch the London train when the trial was in progress
But, Mr James claims, the costs of the legal battle are only part of it. Somehow Jacqui Thompson, armed with just a blog, has incurred untold losses and costs to the council he concludes. Just how anyone could come to that conclusion will probably also remain untold and unexplained.

It's also worth remembering that what sparked the battle in the High Court was a letter which Mr James wrote to the Mad Axeman blog. Mr James manages to avoid mentioning that it was he who wrote and sent the letter, and goes into the third person to say merely that a letter was sent on behalf of the council, before using the royal we:

This was the first and only time we had set out the council's position.

Whether "we" consulted the council's elected members before sending the letter and landing the taxpayer with a huge bill is quite another question.


Anonymous said...

Another aspect of this power that Carmarthenshire council has to fund libel claims is that it is a delegated power. The Chief Executive, the Head of Law and the Director of Resources can, theoretically, launch libel proceedings on behalf of themselves or another officer without any reference to elected members, if they so wish.

Anonymous said...

Not at all surprising.
Not at all surprising.We don't know how the case was regarded by elected members but the chief executive(with his band of merry men)continue to insist it was imperative to countersue.I suspect this will continue to surface again and again.

Tessa said...

Mad and madder. I'm just waiting for the news that he has appointed his horse as deputy.

Patricia B. said...

Before heading to the High Court, Mark James had every opportunity pre trial, to enter into talks with Mrs. Thompson or her lawyers,to come to some sort of mutual understanding with her, thus avoiding enormous costs this sort of action involves. I'm pretty sure this is what most law firms attempt to do and would prefer happen. Judges also welcome out of court settlements. It would have been a far more professional and rational approach to a sensitive dispute. In the South Wales Guardian this week, a council spokesman said "the council will always endeavour to find a solution". This is relative to another ongoing battle a certain Mr. Humphries is having with CCC. My question is 'why didn't Mark James 'endeavour to find a solution' with Mrs. Thompson before resorting to ravaging the public purse. Shameful behaviour from a Chief Executive who should know better.

Anonymous said...

I for one was somebody who took all of what jt said and believed it, the only impartial person who knows all the fact of this case is the judge, and I for one was shocked when I read his judgement. I suspect some people will continue to defend her even if it went to appeal and she lost. At what point do we consider the opinions of the judiciary to actually count?
The real bad guys here are the no win no fee lawyers who initiated the proceedings against MJ. If they hadn't done so, there would never have been any costs to either side.

Tessa said...

@Anonymous 24 May 2013 11:12
By JT do you refer to Caebrwyn, or Justice Tugendhat? And re your being shocked to read the latter's judgement - so was I - rather his interpretation and view of matters than any factual disclosures. Now he again leaves me reeling re his judgement on the mischievous tweet of the delightful and jolly Sally Bercow.

Anonymous said...

Well spotted Tessa!

Anonymous said...

I live in Swansea but have followed Jacqui's blog since its inception. Annonymous 24th May has not considered that while Judge T's verdict was perhaps correct in law he used opinion to decimate her character.He refused Jacqui's witnesses to give testimony as to her character and genuine desire to expose all that is wrong in Carmarthen-and there is much.We all know how judges are not always right and this judge was way out in his opinion of her.Jacqui is to be commended for what she has achieved and not pillioried for perhaps one error of judgement.

Delyth Jenkins said...

I note the reference in the Western Mail article to the Council having a duty of care for staff. Wonder what happened to their duty of care for me when I was bullied, belittled, humiliated, threatened etc. and all because I did the right thing and reported abuse of a vulnerable person who couldn't speak.

Anonymous said...

Their only duty of care is to take their pay packet home unfortunately Delyth!!! Hierarchy need real HR employment law training..... They have not got a clue!!

If they want abuse eradicated as they say they do many will do the honourable thing and resign..... I wouldn't want to live with their conscience!!!

Bring on social care devolution..... I'm sure service users will relish the thought of telling them what to do :-)