Whistleblower Jacqui Thompson closer to homelessness
Whistleblowing in public threatens to make Llanwrda blogger Jacqui Thompson and her husband Kerry homeless.
Jacqui has received a court letter saying that Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, has applied for an order to sell her home, so that the proceeds will provide libel damages awarded to him of £25,000 plus interest at 8% and fees, currently a total of £35,392. The damages were awarded in 2013 when Jacqui lost a libel claim against Mr James, and he won a counter-claim against her.
“There will be a court hearing to decide whether the order is granted,” said Jacqui, “but the odds are in his favour.”
Jacqui’s sole financial asset is the home where she lives with husband Kerry, a long-established forestry worker. They have a self-built bungalow in wooded countryside north of Llanwrda.
The threat to sell the Thompsons’ home is, seen from the outside, an example of a powerful institution turning on a critic. Jacqui became angry about inconsistencies in planning decisions made by the county council, and began writing a critical blog, ‘Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More’.
There is no requirement to pass a legal exam before starting a blog, and Jacqui strayed into hazardous territory, although was unlucky to come up against a chief executive determined to protect his and his council’s reputation, come what may. He wrote about Jacqui on Martin Milan’s ‘Madaxeman’ blog, including these words quoted by Mr Justice Tugendhat in his judgement on Jacqui’s libel claim:
“Mrs Thompson and her family … have been running a campaign of harassment, intimidation and defamation of Council staff and members for some considerable time… [and that, in respect of the incident on 13 April 2011] … the Council would have made a formal complaint of a deliberate attempt to ‘pervert the course of justice’ to the Police by making false statements, but the [Council] officer concerned … did not want to make a fuss…”
Jacqui objected and said she would sue. Chief executive Mark James, protected by an indemnity funded with public money, opted to counter-sue. The grounds were that Jacqui had called him a ‘Pinocchio’ and said he had a slush fund for legal fees and indemnities.
The now-retired Mr Justice Tugendhat, heard the case in February 2013. The learned judge disallowed a jury trial, and chose to agree with evidence on behalf of Mr James and to disagree with evidence submitted by Jacqui’s legal team. She thought she was protected by insurance from the specialist provider Temple, but cover was unceremoniously removed when the judge said he thought, on a balance of probabilities, that she was not telling the truth.
There was no incontrovertible proof that Jacqui lied, but that did not matter in a libel trial.
Withdrawal of insurance cover makes her liable for court costs of £190,390 as well as for the damages awarded to Mr James, and a smaller amount of £7,500 in costs awarded against her after an earlier conflict over a planning decision, settled out of court, with the now-retired head of planning Eifion Bowen.
Jacqui pressed for filming of council meetings to be allowed, and that now happens – and filming of planning committee meetings and executive board meetings too. Filming of planning committee deliberations has shown inconsistent decisions of the sort to which Jacqui objected, but current chair Alun Lenny makes a point of requiring members to justify decisions which appear to conflict with planning policies, and the chances of irregular decisions being made are much reduced.
Is the county council grateful for Jacqui’s prompting?
Individual councillors may well recognise beneficial impacts of her actions – which led to her being arrested and handcuffed for filming part of an open, public meeting on a mobile phone — but the chief executive has chosen to pursue her to the point of forcing the sale of her home, and that would make her and Kerry homeless.
Jacqui has asked for support from her AM and MP, Adam Price and Jonathan Edwards, and from the Welsh Government’s First Minister Carwyn Jones, and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government, Mark Drakeford.
“I’m hoping to bring some political pressure to bear,” she said, “although I’m not sure it will help our predicament.”
An earlier version appeared in the Carmarthenshire Herald, October 28 2016