The dangers inherent in upsetting people who are richer and more powerful than you have not been removed from our particular political system.
This week Jacqui Thompson, the Llanwrda blogger who in 2011 was arrested, handcuffed and detained for trying to film part of a public council meeting on her mobile phone, was in court to argue against the immediate forced sale of her family home, owned by her husband, forestry worker Kerry, and herself.
The court appearance was the latest episode in the long-running conflict between Carmarthenshire County Council’s chief executive Mark James, one of the highest paid government officials in Wales, and housewife and (unpaid) community councillor Jacqui.
Mr James secured a publicly funded indemnity to sue Jacqui for libel, specifically for calling him a Pinocchio and for referring to a slush fund. His action was in response to Jacqui’s high-risk decision to sue him for libel, after he had criticised her and her family on another blog, Madaxeman, run by Mr Martin Milan.
A key factor is the elected councillors’ decision to offer an indemnity for Mr James’ libel claim. The Wales Audit Office said this was unlawful, and it is forbidden in The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) (Order) 2006 — but apparently allowed under a catch-all clause of Section 111 of the much earlier Local Government Act 1972, which permits authorities to do “anything (whether or not involving expenditure …… ) which is calculated to facilitate or is conducive or incidental to the discharge of any of its functions”. Even rob a bank, perhaps, the wording is so permissive. The council relied on the loophole contained in the 1972 Act, as described in People First’s article below:
The Executive Board meeting which agreed to the indemnity, as reported above, heard that any damages would be paid to the council (paragraph 12, sub-section i).
“(i) The Head of Paid Service has confirmed that he is not motivated by a wish to benefit financially and that accordingly should his action be successful any damages awarded to him will be paid over to the Authority and will not be kept by him.”
Mr Justice Tugendhat, at that point soon to retire, awarded Mr James damages. In his opinion — and libel is often all about opinion, about balance of probabilities, not hard evidence — Mr James was all right and Jacqui was all wrong. The judge’s words prompted Jacqui’s insurers to cancel her conditional fee agreement, leaving her personally liable for every £. She cannot pay it all, even if the family’s bungalow (which has an agricultural tie) is sold.
Last week the judge in the County Court, Carmarthen, declined to allow Mr James permission to sell the house immediately. Instead, there is a ten-year stay of execution, and Jacqui has to pay £250 a month towards the damages bill of £25,000 plus interest and fees, a total around £36,000 before the County Court hearing. The total now exceeds that by over £14,000, because the judge added the latest fees to the damages. Even so, it’s not as much as the nearly £22,000 which Mr James’ team wanted.
Mr James was supposed to pay damages over to the council. That was the arrangement when the indemnity was agreed. Yet last week he appeared to have changed his mind. The court heard, through his counsel, that he could “stuff the money in the gutter” if he wanted. That’s not what the Executive Board agreed to!
Elections are coming, on May 4th. The Executive Board will have some changes due to retirements, and perhaps after the vote there will be a completely fresh line-up. Hopefully the new board will remind themselves of paragraph 12, sub-section i.
Especially as residents all over the county are looking at their new Council Tax bills and wincing.