Friday 16 December 2016

Mr James's Legal Glacier

Poor old Ötzi collapsed and died of his injuries high up in the Alps, and it took nearly 5,000 years for his mummified remains to reappear. The British legal system, not known for bringing matters to a speedy conclusion, moves at a gallop in comparison, and the last week has seen some interesting developments in the Jacqui Thompson case, with one long-buried grizzly exhibit being disgorged at the foot of County Hall's very own glacier and giving off a distinctly unpleasant odour as it lies alongside two other pieces of legal detritus.


The exhibit in question takes the form of a statement issued by the council chief executive to councillors explaining his decision to send an inflammatory piece attacking Jacqui Thompson and her family to the Madaxeman blog for publication back in 2011. This extraordinarily vitriolic piece was written in response to widespread criticism of Jacqui Thompson's arrest for filming a small snatch of a council meeting, and it triggered the libel case.

After it was sent, Councillors were provided a copy of the blogpost along with the following brief statement:

You may have received a letter from Mrs Jacqui Thompson, furthering her continued campaign against the Council. Members have asked that a response be sent to Mrs Thompson.  Please find attached a copy of a response which was sent to a blog site supporting Mrs Thompson.  This sets out the Council’s position succinctly.

This should have come as a surprise to most of the 74 councillors who would have struggled to recall asking Mr James to write to the Madaxeman. 

The Madaxeman is a blog written by a man called Martin Milan who lives in Yorkshire. Martin's interests are wide-ranging, and include the NHS, software development and, occasionally, cases in which the full weight of the law has been thrown against unfortunate individuals for very trivial reasons. The Twitter Joke Trial had previously been the subject of posts on his blog.

Jacqui Thompson's arrest for filming was triggered by a complaint made by Cllr Pam Palmer, the leader of the "Independent" group on the council which not for nothing has often been described as Mr James's political wing. Cllr Palmer felt violated by being filmed in a public meeting of the council. If children enjoyed legal protection from being filmed and photographed, so too should county councillors, she argued, somehow forgetting that five year olds don't put themselves up for election to public office and run councils.

Jacqui Thompson's arrest triggered a huge amount of negative publicity for the council, and attracted the attention of the London press. 

This has always been one of the central paradoxes of Mr James's very long rule in Carmarthenshire: for someone who has invested huge sums in building up the council's PR machine and gone to extreme lengths to silence criticism of his council, Carmarthenshire County Council has gained one of the most tarnished reputations of any local authority in the UK. And there is some pretty stiff competition out there.

If Mr James had received requests from councillors asking him to respond to Jacqui Thompson, why did he choose to write to the Madaxeman instead? And why on earth did he chose that blog when he could have picked up the phone and dictated copy, as was his wont on many other occasions, to the Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star which, unlike Martin Milan's excellent blog, were actually read by people in Carmarthenshire? 

Mr James's views would also have been welcomed by other, more august publications, such as the New Statesman, where David Allen Green, now a columnist on law and policy for the Financial Times, had been extremely critical of both the county council and Dyfed Powys Police for their handling of the affair.

All of these widely read and influential publications were disregarded in favour of an obscure blog, and papers released by the council ahead of the libel trial show that in penning his piece, Mr James hunkered down with a select group including the then Head of Law and Administration, Lyn Thomas (responsible for inserting the unlawful libel indemnity clause into the council's constitution) and the head of the council's press office, the source of numerous attacks and smears over the years against council critics including Members of Parliament and Assembly Members.

There is in the documents released nothing to show that the resulting fire bomb was ever authorised by anyone apart from Mr James himself, but that single act has continued to reverberate down the years and inflict damage on the council.

A more cynical commentator than Cneifiwr might conclude that the Madaxeman statement was deliberately inflammatory and intended to provoke a response which would escalate matters further. If that was the case, Mr James succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Councillors who ponder why the council has got itself into this mess, should ask themselves whether the council's interests were best served by seeking confrontation when a more moderate and diplomatic response would probably have laid the filming controversy to rest.

Perverting the course of justice?

The most damning and damaging passage of Mr Justice Tugendhat's verdict in the libel trial was that Jacqui Thompson had lied about the sequence of events which took place in the public gallery at County Hall in April 2011. This, he concluded, amounted to an attempt to pervert the course of justice, and it was that finding which resulted in Jacqui's insurers revoking their cover.

In his recent comment on Facebook, Cllr Alun Lenny refers to this finding, and it is fair enough that anyone reading the verdict would take this at face value.

What does not emerge from the verdict is the background to the witness statement which was the basis for Mr Justice Tugendhat's ruling..

Following Cllr Palmer's complaint, a hapless council officer was dispatched to the public gallery to remonstrate with Jacqui Thompson. As anyone familiar with County Hall in Carmarthen will be able to testify, not only is it impossible to see the whole of the chamber from the gallery, but those sitting in the chamber have a less than perfect view of the gallery. 

So what ensued came down to the word of one individual against another, with Jacqui Thompson alleging that her arm was grasped and her phone snatched from her.

For his part, the council officer changed his statement twice, producing three differing accounts of what happened. Surprisingly, perhaps, from being rather uncertain, his memory improved with each successive account.

It would be outrageous to suggest that the officer was in any way coached or leaned on to change his story. Suffice to say that he works for the current Head of Law, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, who as we know was appointed to her role by Mr James himself and appeared as a witness in the trial.

The standard of evidence required in civil cases such as this is much lower than it would be in a criminal prosecution. Beyond reasonable doubt it was not, and yet the consequences for both Jacqui Thompson personally and the council financially and reputationally have been little short of catastrophic.

Contempt and "not meeting the criteria"

The attempt by Cllrs Alun Lenny (Plaid) and Cefin Campbell (Plaid) to table a motion proposing a compromise which would allow the Thompsons to continue to live in their home was, as we know, blocked.

The official fiction as relayed by the council's Press Office to the Carmarthen Journal is that the somewhat bewildered looking council chair, Cllr Eryl Morgan (Lab), came to the conclusion after rigorous examination of the council's constitution that the motion submitted by the two Plaid councillors did not meet the criteria for a Notice of Motion:

"The chair of council has confirmed that he ruled the notice of motion as submitted was inadmissible, because it did not meet the criteria set out in the council's standing orders."

Meanwhile, the two Plaid councillors were told by Mrs Rees Jones - Cllr Morgan being apparently unable to speak for himself - that the motion might run the risk of being in contempt of court, and that anyway, they had been extremely discourteous to poor old Eryl by sharing their thoughts on the matter with the public before the chair had been told what to say  formed his own opinion.

Those familiar with council meetings presided over by Mr James and Mrs Rees Jones will recognise this "make it up as you go along" approach to the rules.

This is all the council's standing orders have to say about the criteria for Notices of Motion:

12.3 SCOPE

Motions must be about matters for which the Council has a responsibility or which affect the wellbeing of the administrative area of the Council.

Bearing in mind that the council funded the entire libel case and is now having to live with the consequences, it is hard to see how the proposed motion could fail to meet the criteria described. But in this matter, Mrs Rees Jones, as Monitoring Officer, is the font of all wisdom. As so often in the past, it seems reasonable to conclude that she must have been reading from an entirely different rule book.

As for the suggestion that the motion could leave the council open to charges of contempt of court, a learned friend of Cneifiwr's described the idea as being, in that well known legal phrase, "utter bollocks".

The council has through the courts gained control over the Thompson home, and Mr James has gone on the record as saying both that he is not interested in the money, and that he would give his damages to the council (although he told the Carmarthen Journal that he might give the loot to good causes).

The only way that the High Court would consider whether the Lenny-Campbell proposal constituted contempt would be if the council's chief executive applied to the court to ask it to rule on the matter. 

In other words, it seems that Mr James, speaking through Mrs Rees Jones, is threatening the council with court action. If so, it would not be the first time, it being understood that Mr James brought in the lawyers when the council was considering suspending him pending investigation of the unlawful pensions and libel indemnity allegations.

The compromise eventually agreed was that he would voluntarily "stand aside" during the investigation. And not long after that he put in an application for redundancy which turned out to come with a very high price tag.

Mr James has now been chief executive for 15 years, which is rather longer than the vast majority of senior officers stay in post in either the private or the public sector. Many councillors are still in denial, but the tantrums, threats and control freakery are all classic signs of an abusive relationship which has to be terminated.

Meanwhile, the legal glacier will carry on disgorging more gruesome remains in the run-up to next year's council elections and beyond.


Anonymous said...

Councillors should be approached individually to agree to discuss nothing else but this proposal at the next meeting. And every time that james decides to overrule them to advise him that he is there purely in an advisory capacity and that as councillors if they want to discuss something so relevant to the council as a minor matter that impacts its reputation caused by a single individual then that is their right.

Furthermore, they [councillors] need to develop a backbone and call a vote of no confidence in james and have him suspended immediately on the grounds that he is failing in his duties, along with his 'legal' advisor who quite frankly appears to have less than a basic grasp of law.

He had his chance of redundancy, now the opportunity for gross misconduct is presenting and its probably the best chance the county has of removing this cancerous tumour and appointing 2 people who will act in the best interests of the county and its population, rather than feathering their own nests.

And in achieving that it will expose the 3 witches of Spilman Street who also need removing.

Tessa said...

Good on you Cneifiwr, mun - another superb piece of writing. Despite the very grim subject matter, and the shocking facts behind this whole "pound of flesh" saga, still made me laugh out loud!

Anonymous said...

There is little point Cneifiwr in re running the Court Case and tacitly implying that the hapless Council employee was knobled by his more senior colleagues .
The Judge had all of the evidence at his disposal and on the balance of probabilities came to a conclusion.
Mrs Thompson has not covered herself in glory from the Planning applications saga in which Eifion Bowen successfully won a Court action to her action against Mark James. He has showed how petulant he is and he thinks he is omniscient.
No one comes out of this with credit but to think a family could be rendered homeless by the haughtiness of a local authority servant is nauseating.

passerby said...

as for the council election in may, those who kept quiet or nonchelant and complicit in the whole affair should withdraw their nominations.

Anonymous said...

I am so pleased that Cneifiwr has included facts from the trial that have not been aired enough.The judge in the case based his opinion of what happened during the daft arrest on one officer's evidence which changed a few times.I will repeat that this flawed judgement was the cause of Jacqui's insurance cover being withdrawn.He was well out of order in accusing her of attempting to pervert the course of justice as there were no witnesses to corroberate what happened in the public gallery on the day of the arrest.
There was much in the trial that was wrong and it is difficult for any judge to overturn the judgement of another.

Anonymous said...

How many more scandals surrounding this Chief Executive and his Band of Merry Members are the Welsh Government going to ignore, and more to the point, why?? Is it that he has influence in Cardiff? It doesn't make sense. Far more influential persons have been outed for far less. Why is this man not being investigated?

Mrs Angry said...

As someone who attended all of the libel hearing I must say that I absolutely agree with the concerns Cneifiwr raises here. I felt deeply uneasy throughout the hearing in regard to the way in which her case was represented in court, and I have every sympathy for her now, in these terrible circumstances. Nothing is to be achieved by the relentless pursuit of these costs, and I fail to understand why anyone would wish to cause someone to lose their home as a consequence of this course of events. Time for intervention by someone - anyone - with the sense to see at least the political damage this case has caused, and will continue to cause.

passerby said...

anon 19:47 maybe because they be in contempt of court (if there it is in place) if wag start asking questions.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 14:24
I'd just like to say that the judge didn't have all the evidence, an initial statement given by the council officer was not disclosed. The judge also chose to disregard his live evidence, evidence which contradicted sworn statements he gave to the police at the time; the judge failed to mention evidence which pointed to an altercation in the gallery and failed to apply, or even mention, a standard of proof commensurate with the seriousness of the allegation. I could go on but suffice to say the judge was wrong and what is more, the police also investigated the allegation this year and decided that I didn't have a case to answer.

Patricia B said...

Could this council's conduct sink any lower? I think not. It is alarming that officers are accountable to no-one and we as taxpayers are being let down time and again by the dishonesty and coverup of malpractice. They do of course have 'statutory duties' which have to be abided by and this is (should be) our protection as taxpayers. Well, that is what we are all led to believe. This is all to give us a feeling of comfort and belief that if we are treated badly by those we entrust to carry out correct procedures and duties, abide by their Code of Conduct, acknowledge the Human Rights Act, and adopt the Seven Nolan Principles, there would be consequences for those who fall short of those criteria. Linda Rees Jones has them as do all officers employed by the authority. I believed that failure to carry out 'statutory duties' was a serious matter, especially if that failure caused some innocent person severe damage. That was until recently! I have now been enlightened. Officers - all officers, employed by this authority do NOT have to abide by these 'statutory duties' in law - as these duties/powers are ONLY discretionary after all! In short, if officers do not wish to implement correct procedures and regulations which are 'statutory duties' - well - they simply don't have to. What's more it would appear they don't owe anyone an explanation as to why they allow certain individuals to get away with unauthorised developments without planning permissions. This may well be why no-one is accountable any more - is it??

Anonymous said...

Anon 19.47

Can't be ignored for much longer!

Anonymous said...

There is something afoot in Carmarthen Council that grows bigger by the day.
the ploy by MJ aided and abetted by his joined- at- the hip supporter LiNDA OF lEGAL.
The brave stance by Alun Lenny and Cefin Campell was quickly demolished with threat of contempt of court for just discussing it in the council chamber.
This has now been proved to be absolute nonsense and of course is what MJ does best.
Linda Rees Jones must explain herself further if she wants to retain her favoured position.
Emlyn Dole is clearly terrified of Mark James so it is really down to councillors to ask the Welsh Assembly to clarify the position.The evidence is there.Since occupying his position as CEO in Carmarthen he has had an agenda and that is to render impotent all elected members and gain total control.This he has now achieved.Welsh Assembly take note, the snowball is gathering speed and we all know what happens when it stops.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely nothing will be achieved unless this comedy council is brought to the attention of the wider public. Get them investigated by some relevant high profile bodies that will cause the WAG and other paper tigers to take note.

I suggest you start with the following:

And any more you feel relevant. The more people submit these stories to these journalists the greater the chance it will be picked up with and investigated. Only when difficult questions are being asked will the house of cards fall.

Mrs Angry said...

How has it happened that the political and executive roles of local government have become so confused in Carmarthenshire? And why do elected members allow this to continue?

If your political representatives - with the honourable exception of Cllr Caiach - refuse to challenge the status quo, then the only way forward is for residents and taxpayers to take direct action, and campaign for change.

Organise peaceful but well publicised demonstrations outside your council meetings, lobby those politicians openly, and demand they make themselves properly accountable to you. Use social media - responsibly - to coordinate a campaign to demand a better and more transparent administration, as another commenter suggested, fully aligned with the Nolan principles that are supposed to be central to the process of local government.

In the end, only public campaigning, and political pressure, will deliver you from the current state of affairs: if your politicians are not inclined to exert their influence for change to something better, then you must engage with them and insist they listen to the perfectly reasonable concerns you have, and keep it up until they realise their own political futures are at stake.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Mrs Angry the chief executive is so powerful that even the councillors with the most integrity cannot,to date anyway,take on this despot.
Just look at Head of Legal and council monitoring officer Linda R- Jones and her role in propping up this man.
Does not she have statutory duties to oversee council affairs so ensuring democratic decisions are
clearly vivible by the public and especially councillors.
I would love someone to show me when this last happened.

Patricia B said...

Anon 14.44 Wales This week ran three documentaries on my particular battle with this council's planning department regarding some highly questionable planning issues at it's heart. It exposed serious failings and uncovered evidence of malpractice for which we have suffered immeasurably. What has happened to us is very serious indeed. An investigation, absolutely should have followed with apologies made and compensation paid for the years we have had stolen by neglect of duties. The BBC ran another one exposing more , this time with the Ombudsman speaking out on my behalf. There is something seriously wrong going on in our political arena here in Carmarthenshire and until there's a full Public Inquiry, the arrogancem ill will and ignorance will continue.

Anonymous said...

In Carmarthenshire there are proven cases involving malpractice.No more evidence is necessary.
All it needs is for people to lobby their AM'S and MP's and request a public inquiry-not just on behalf of their constituents but themselves after having viewed ALL the evidence.

Anonymous said...

Anon 18.53

Some M.P.'s don't want to get involved even when they see evidence of constituents suffering injustices, and rather keep their heads down and say 'I'm sorry but there is nothing more I can do to help you'. (even though they have done nothing to help in the first place).

Someone needs to organise a public meeting.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely shocked to know how much Pam Palmer and the like rake in for showing themselves up as incompetents.Is it any wonder she wants to hang on by supporting her dear leader,and he knows it.That is why he can do what he has done--dispence with democracy.Idiots most of them except the few who still have integrity.