west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Archive for the tag “Jacqui Thompson”

Know Your Place! Don’t Annoy Big Shots!

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:

http://www.peoplefirstwales.org.uk/2016_11_01_archive.html

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.

PDR

 

 

 

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The Dangerous Power of Stories

Elections for county councillors are coming up.  On May 4th 2017 we will be off to the polling stations once again, to choose our councillors.

How will the vote go in Carmarthenshire? I’m not going to guess, but do think that the coalition in power, trying to implement deep financial cuts, has an especially tough job. Their councillors have a record which electors can vote against, while the opposition has only had to oppose.

Plaid Cymru are the dominant force by numbers in the county, with 29 councillors, followed by Labour (22), the Independent group (20), People First (1) and unaffiliated (2).  The Executive Board, which does much of the decision making, is a coalition with five Plaid members and five from the Independent group. The leader of the Board is Plaid’s Emlyn Dole (Lannon), and he has two deputies – David Jenkins (Plaid, Glanaman) and Pam Palmer (Independent, Abergwili).

Labour was in power, with the Independents, until May 2015, and so come the elections, will have been in opposition for two years – long enough for some of their more questionable decisions to be relegated to the back of voters’ minds.

Plaid, though, will be completing two years in the media spotlight, and has to answer to the electorate for decisions made when they were the opposition, decisions such as rural school closures, small town parking charges, the expensive stadium for the Scarlets at Trostre, and legal adventures involving the chief executive and top staff officer, Mr Mark James CBE.

Mr James’ clash with local blogger Jacqui Thompson has been documented in detail – on this blog here, herehere and here. Mr James won. To obtain the damages he was awarded, he could force the sale of Jacqui’s bungalow home, which is also the base for her husband Kerry’s forestry work.

The Thompson v. James and James v. Thompson libel cases still carry a big risk for the councillors in power. Private Eye commented in its November 11th issue that Mark James “persuaded the council to indemnify his legal costs, contrary to guidance from both the Welsh and UK governments”.  The Wales Audit Office said Mr James’ indemnity was unlawful.  It doesn’t take much imagination to guess how national media would present the story – highly paid local government boss got taxpayers’ cash to back libel action against housewife critic. Or similar. It wouldn’t be pretty, and almost certainly the county council would be presented as the Big Bad Wolf, with Mrs Thompson in the role of Red Riding Hood.

Voters tend to remember stories with emotional appeal more than intricate factual detail, whether or not the facts are correct.

And emotional appeals before elections can have far-reaching impact.

Just think Trump. ‘Make America Great Again’ struck an emotional chord. It had nothing to do with facts.

PDR

Solicitors’ ‘defamation highlight’ is low point for client Jacqui

The homelessness facing Llanwrda blogger Jacqui Thompson and her husband Kerry, reported in this week’s Private Eye (p.16), is not exactly a triumph for her legal team.

Yet Simons Muirhead and Burton, her solicitors in the 2013 libel court case in which she sued Carmarthenshire County Council’s chief executive Mark James and lost, and he counter-sued her and won, claim the litigation as one of their “defamation highlights”.

“Lucy Moorman and Jeffrey Smele represented award-winning blogger, Jacqui Thompson, in her libel action against Carmarthenshire County Council and its Chief Executive, Mark James, who also counterclaimed,” their website proclaims.

Lucy Moorman, a barrister, is now a pre-transmission advice lawyer at the BBC. Jeffrey Smele remains at Simons Muirhead and Burton, as a senior lawyer.

No mention on the web page, though, that the judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, found for Mr James both times, after deciding to accept his evidence and to reject Jacqui’s.

To be fair to the solicitors, so much of a libel trial heard by a single judge appears to depend on their personal interpretation of motives, which is hard to predict.

Jacqui’s double loss should have been covered by her legal insurance, but Temple Legal Protection Ltd  cancelled the cover (always read the small print) after hearing Mr Justice Tugendhat doubt Jacqui’s truthfulness.

Asked if she had been aware that her cover could disappear, Jacqui said yes, she knew, it had all been explained to her, but she never thought it could happen because she knew she was telling the truth.

That assumption, in the dangerous world of libel, was mistaken. The judge decided that Jacqui and her family had waged a “campaign of harassment, intimidation and defamation of Council staff and members for some considerable time”, and that Jacqui’s terms ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘slush fund’, applied to Mr James, were libellous.

Lacking insurance after losing, Jacqui found herself liable for costs and damages exceeding a quarter of a million pounds. Her only big asset is her share of the bungalow in which she and Kerry live. Mr James has applied for a court order to enable him to sell the bungalow to recoup damages.

Sudden withdrawal of insurance cover has left Jacqui and Kerry in a nightmare situation. Should it be allowed when, as here, Jacqui is not facing a criminal charge? At the behest of Mr James, Dyfed-Powys Police investigated Jacqui for perverting the course of justice but could not find evidence to warrant a criminal prosecution.

Jonathan Edwards, MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, where Jacqui lives, said he has never been lobbied about the withdrawal of insurance cover, but sees the injustice in its summary removal.

“A fair justice system is the foundation of our modern society which binds us together in our belief of fairness and accountability.  Part of our justice system is, of course, the principle of equal access to justice for all,” he said.

“This particular case, and the cancelling of legal insurance, is not an issue on which I’ve ever been lobbied and I am unaware of any widespread practice of policies being cancelled.

“If such a practice is indeed widespread then changing the law to prevent this would seem sensible in order to ensure justice is not reserved to only those who can afford it.”

Remembering that Mr James had the security of an indemnity from public funds, and Jacqui had only a (misplaced) confidence that she would be vindicated, and the extreme imbalance in the legal system is plain.

Insurance companies willing to cancel cover, although evidence does not reach the standard required for a criminal trial, tilts the scales of justice even more in favour of those with fat wallets or access to the public purse.

PDR

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.

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Jacqui Thompson: blogger about to have her home sold by court order

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.”

PDR

An earlier version appeared in the Carmarthenshire Herald, October 28 2016

Blogger faces financial oblivion  — part 2

The second part of an investigation into the interactions between planning decisions in Carmarthenshire, free speech, institutional power, and access to legal expertise. The first part, here, reported on the financial oblivion faced by Llanwrda blogger Jacqui Thompson, who lost a libel action against Mr Mark James and Carmarthenshire County Council. Jacqui had many questions about planning decisions, and in Carmarthenshire there have been several examples of decisions which appear inconsistent, odd, and hard to justify. 

 See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 19, p.8

Tangled complexity

Inconsistencies in decisions made by Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning department highlight both the tangled complexity of planning regulations and a tendency in the council not to challenge – -at least, not to challenge early enough – planning contraventions which could consume large quantities of the department’s time and resources. Sometimes, too, councillors fail to follow planning policy when it conflicts with personal views of how the world should work.

Last week in Part 1, we saw that Jacqui’s application for a forestry worker’s bungalow received multiple rejections, but on a nearby parcel of bare land another applicant’s plan for a farm worker’s bungalow was approved.

There are more seemingly contrary cases. The following examples, originally from ‘Inconsistent planning decisions damage public confidence’, in West Wales News Review, October 18 2015, represent some of the planning contradictions which have perplexed applicants and the public.

Granted Refused Ignored
Stable block by roadside hedge at Crugybar (E/29504) Mobile field shelter by roadside hedge at Broad Oak (E/31647) Operation of haulage business without permission, Maesybont
Agricultural buildings on holding with minimal agriculture, Maesybont (numerous, E/01257, TG/01947, TG/02011, E/05992, E/06708, E/07519, E/09576, E/11544, E/14109, E/14145, E/14648, E/17981, E/18176, E/19928, E/21494, E/25234 and E/25246) Four smallholdings in accordance with the Wales Government’s ‘One Planet’ policy, near Llanboidy (W/31160). This was later granted on appeal, with the county council ordered to pay the applicant’s costs Destruction of part of Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation
House 40 metres from a farmyard containing an unoccupied house, Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road (W/32578) Solar panels on an unlisted barn adjacent to a listed house, Brechfa (E/31647)

 

Field shelter verdict made national news

At Broad Oak, Andrew and Meg-Anne Redman failed to get permission to retain a mobile field shelter, set behind a hedge, on the grounds that the land it was on totalled only 6.2 acres and so it would not be large enough for viable agriculture. The decision went against common practice of allowing mobile structures on farms and smallholdings, and was so out-of-the-ordinary that it made the front cover of Horse and Hound magazine.

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Council’s shock ruling’ made national news.

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Mr Andrew Redman’s field shelter was on skids and could be moved about the field — but the council said it had to go.

Planning inspector P J Davies called Mr and Mrs Redman’s shelter “low in height and not unduly prominent in public vantage points because it is situated just below the hedge line and screened by the hedge itself”, and she also said that there is no absolute prohibition against buildings on small acreages, but she decided that the shelter lacked agricultural justification and so could not remain.

The equestrian building at Caer Onnen, Crugybar, 94 feet long and over 24 feet wide on a holding of just under 12 acres, is also set behind a hedge. It is a condition of planning permission that this building is used only for domestic or recreational purposes. On this basis, if Mr and Mrs Redman had applied for a shelter for domestic use, they might have been successful.

At Maesybont, the issues of a haulage business and large new buildings at Blaenpant Farm seem to be issues of ‘too much aggravation’ to resolve. The extensive range of buildings have permission for agricultural use, but ‘agriculture’ appears to have a broad and permissive definition when large areas of land are involved, and can include horse grazing and storage of industrial equipment, for example. On the other hand, a narrow definition seems to be applied to smaller plots, as in the case of Mr and Mrs Redman’s field shelter on 6.2 acres.

Council must cough up costs

Applications for BIG buildings seem to have a larger chance of success than proposals for small structures which help the applicants to earn a living. Rejected plans for four smallholdings at Rhiw Las near Llanboidy are a good example of ‘small is suspect’.  Although the smallholdings met all the requirements of the Welsh Government’s innovative One Planet policy for low-impact living, and although the planning officer dealing with the application recommended its approval, a majority of councillors on the planning committee apparently could not think of ‘agriculture’ as anything other than large flocks of sheep, or substantial herds of beef or dairy cattle. Given this conception of ‘agriculture’, and the current difficulties of making a living from this type of large-scale ‘agriculture’, no surprise that councillors could not imagine how anyone could support themselves and their families from a mini acreage.

But they made the wrong decision. Applicant Erica Thompson (no relation to Jacqui) appealed, and in June 2016 planning inspector Alwyn Nixon gave permission for the venture to proceed – and ordered the county council to pay the costs of the appeal.

So, ‘No’ to new smallholdings, but ‘Yes’ to a four-bedroom house at Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road, in the countryside and 40 metres from a farmyard containing a currently unoccupied farmhouse. The rationale from members of the planning committee, who approved the plan contrary to the advice of the planning officer, seemed to be that the applicant, Mr Brian Walters, is prominent in the Farmers Union of Wales and an upstanding member of the community.

A four-bedroomed house in the countryside is, arguably, a bigger intrusion into the landscape than Bobby Bazalgette’s solar panels on his single-storey barn at Brechfa. Renewable energy is sensible, surely, much better for the climate than burning coal, oil or gas? Not in the eyes of Carmarthenshire’s planning department – which told Mr Bazalgette to remove the panels because they detracted from the historical setting of his farmhouse, which is a listed building (although the barn is not listed). This seems a pernickety decision – an intervention against a small and many would say eminently appropriate change, which in no way damages the fabric of the listed farmhouse nearby.

While the planning department was heavy-handed over this small issue, it forgot it had hands when confronted with damage at Maesybont to part of Cernydd Carmel, a Special Area of Conservation which is supposed to receive the highest possible level of protection. Destruction of surface features and habitats, over more than a decade, seems to have struck the planners as less important than renewable energy panels on a barn – or so it appears to the general public.

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Part of Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation before ‘improvement’.

Public scrutiny of inconsistent decisions is surely legitimate. With such seemingly odd determinations as these, how could the public have full confidence that their applications will be dealt with fairly and impartially, or that unauthorised developments or destruction will be halted?

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The same landscape after ‘improvement’, which reprofiled the land and removed the original vegetation. 

Transparency improving

Jacqui Thompson’s arrest in 2011 for filming at a Carmarthenshire County Council meeting generated copious publicity, and has helped to open up meetings to scrutiny. Members of the public can sit in the public gallery above the council chamber, but the view of proceedings is restricted. Additionally, people were locked in until the Fire Service was alerted to the practice of locking the emergency exit doors.

Meetings of the full council and the executive board, as well as the planning committee, are now webcast, and can be watched online both at the time and later, a real advance in transparency. The webcasts are a rich resource for journalists and bloggers alike. Webcasts of planning committee meetings have shown favouritism to some applicants, and on occasion hostility to others, for reasons which have nothing to do with planning regulations. The councillors concerned just seemed insufficiently aware of current planning policies.

Transparency would expand further if planners told us how they

  • Regularly scrutinised, for inconsistencies and possible errors, the decisions they make under the extensive powers which have been delegated to them;
  • Put matters right if there have been mistakes; and
  • Published the reasons for apparently contradictory decisions.

The retreat of the regional press in the face of cheap digital competition meant that scrutiny of planning and other local government decisions became less systematic. Bloggers fill gaps, by reporting local news and seeking to hold institutions like councils to account. For Jacqui Thompson, who was not a professional journalist and learned, painfully and expensively through writing, her blog began as a way to highlight planning issues, but expanded to cover a broad spectrum of local government activities. In 2011 her ‘Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More’ won the ‘best politics blog’ category in the occasional Wales Blog Awards, and in 2014 she was a finalist.

The accolades, though, failed to convince the county council that her blog is political comment and not an expression of revenge.

PDR

Blogger under police investigation faces financial obliteration 

See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 12th, pages 1 and 3

No bungalow for forestry worker

Jacqueline (Jacqui) Thompson, married to forestry contractor Kerry Thompson and living in the countryside between Llanwrda and Caio, started to feel that the county’s planners discriminated against them.

In 1990, Jacqui and Kerry had received permission for a forestry contractor’s bungalow dwelling at Cae Brwyn, Llanwrda, and for an agricultural implement shed. Sixteen years later, in 2006, they applied for a workshop and barn on the site. This was refused by the planning department, under officers’ delegated powers, on the grounds that the applicants had not demonstrated sufficient need or justification for the building, which would be in front of the bungalow and “cause an adverse effect on the visual amenity of the area”.

On three occasions between 2004 and 2007  (applications E/06601, E/17614, E/09739) Jacqui applied, as a voluntary agent, for permission to construct a bungalow, with an agricultural tie restricting its value on the open market,  for Kerry Thompson’s brother Eddie, a forestry co-worker. All three applications were refused, and so was an application in 2006 (E/11853) for a temporary mobile home on the plot intended for the bungalow. The final rejection, signed by senior development control officer Graham Noakes and dated December 18 2007, said that “insufficient information has been provided to demonstrate that there is a proven local affordable housing need, the proposal would therefore create a form of unacceptable sporadic development in the open countryside”.

Yet in the following year, 2008, less than a quarter of a mile up the lane from Cae Brwyn, Carmarthenshire’s planning committee approved application E/20004 from CR and DM Griffiths of Betws, Ammanford, for a “single storey dwelling or a dormer bungalow” in open countryside, on land which had been fragmented more than a decade earlier, when the farmhouse, buildings and 34 acres at Hafod Tafolog were sold off “to enable further land to be bought and to make the business more viable”, according to the council’s planning appraisal. One of the reasons given for the approval was the policy permitting a dwelling required for people engaged mainly in agriculture, a category which includes forestry.  Despite the permission, to date this dwelling has not been built.

 

Defamation case brought by Eifion Bowen settled out of court

Jacqui Thompson, who is a community councillor in Llanwrda, and husband Kerry had begun to scrutinise decisions made by Carmarthenshire ’s planning department, then headed by Eifion Bowen, who retired in 2015. On February 28 2006, after one of Eddie Thompson’s applications for forestry worker’s accommodation was rejected, Kerry was annoyed, left the house, and Jacqui thought he might call unannounced on Mr Bowen at his home, so she alerted police to the possibility. Kerry, though, did not visit Mr Bowen’s home.

Kerry, Jacqui and Eddie emailed Eifion Bowen and several other people at the county council on March 1 2006, calling for Mr Bowen’s resignation on the grounds of professional misconduct and gross incompetence. The Thompsons’ antipathy to various planning decisions did not abate. On October 18 2006 Jacqui and Kerry wrote to multiple persons at the county council, to media organisations including the BBC, to their MP Adam Price, the Welsh Assembly’s planning division, and three assembly members. Their letter asked for the dismissal of Eifion Bowen and criticised Mark James and the council’s Head of Corporate Property, Jonathan Fearn, for acting improperly in regard to certain planning applications, although they lacked evidence which would have stood up in a court of law.

Mr Bowen decided to sue for defamation. The case was settled out of court, with Jacqui and Kerry apologising and agreeing to pay £7,500 towards Mr Bowen’s costs. The Thompsons lacked savings, and so in place of cash, Mr Bowen obtained a charge on their bungalow, the value of which is restricted by the agricultural tie on it.

The 2016 value of the property, once the mortgage is deducted, is around £140,000 – half belonging to Kerry and half to Jacqui.

In 2009 Jacqui started a blog called ‘Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More’. Her comments eventually enraged Mark James, the council’s Chief Executive, who made it known that he had not read postings on the blog, except for extracts brought to his attention by individual officers or councillors, until litigation proceedings started late in 2011.

 

Jacqui pursued for over £220,000

Now in 2016, after Jacqui lost a libel claim against Mr James and the county council, after Mr James and the council won a counter-claim for defamation against Jacqui, and after Jacqui’s appeal failed, Mr James is pursuing her for payment of £190,390 for the council’s costs, plus a balance of £30,913 in damages to Mr James himself (the original award of £25,000 plus interest at 8% a year) Bailiffs’ fees of around £4,000 were also payable but, according to Jacqui, “seem to have been dropped following their unsuccessful attempt at recovery”. The bailiffs had not found goods worth seizing.

Jacqui cannot afford to pay, because her legal insurers, Temple Legal Insurance, revoked the after-the event policy which would have protected her financially in case she lost, following the libel trial verdict given by Mr Justice Tugendhat who had concluded that Jacqui had lied, thereby attempting to pervert the course of justice. This let the insurers escape from the contract.

In April 2016, Jacqui received a letter from solicitors acting for Mr James personally, saying that he intended to ask the High Court to start contempt of court proceedings against her, and also – quite a frightener, this – informing her that Mr James has asked police to investigate if she can be prosecuted for the crime of harassment. She learned later that an investigation for perverting the course of justice was also being considered.

If the case reaches court, and Jacqui is subsequently found guilty, she could be jailed.

Matthew Paul, barrister and Conservative candidate for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in May’s elections for Welsh Assembly elections, went public with opposition to the council’s continuing pursuit of Jacqui. Commenting in The Herald on April 22 2016 (p.22), Matthew Paul wrote:

“The High Court’s judgment (and that of the Court of Appeal) in Thompson v. James was badly wrong. It would have been entirely possible to find that neither party had libelled the other, and that the case was an immense waste of Court time and public money. Mr Justice Tugendhat should have ruled that Thompson’s comments made on the blog were plainly political, and protected both by the common law and Art. 10 of the ECHR [Article 10, on freedom of expression, in the European Convention on Human Rights]. Quite independently of the EU, our own Courts failed lamentably in this case to protect free expression.”

 

Arrested for filming at a council meeting

The hashtag #daftarrest was popular on Twitter as a response to Jacqui’s arrest for filming a council meeting in June 2011.  In February that year in England, Bob Neill MP, a junior minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, wrote to all council leaders in England urging them to be as open to ‘citizen journalists’ as they already were to professional journalists. He was concerned about “recent stories about people being ejected from Council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming” and said he wanted all councils to “take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to the wider audience”.  Welsh councils, though, were beyond the influence of Mr Neill, local government being a devolved matter.

Jacqui continued to attend council meetings and to blog.  On March 14 2011 she made an error onto which Mr Justice Tugendhat later pounced. She wrote on her blog that the council had amended its constitution so that libel claims against officers could be funded by the taxpayer, and she also said that a “statement is only libellous if it is untrue and I am certain that I have never said or written an untruth about Carmarthenshire County Council”.

This contributed to her undoing, because Mr Justice Tugendhat had noted that in their defence to Eifion Bowen’s earlier defamation claim, Jacqui and Kerry Thompson had not said that the words which defamed Mr Bowen were true. The Thompsons had apologised. Therefore, the learned justice concluded, Jacqui had not told the truth to the court when she said that she “really did mean every word of her apology”, because in his view she could not make a sincere apology while also believing that she was in the right.

On Thursday March 31 2011 Jacqui was in the public gallery filming a meeting of the council’s planning committee when an officer ordered her to stop. She filmed again on Friday April 13, using her mobile phone, but Democratic Services Officer Martin Davies arrived in the gallery to tell her to stop. Here evidence diverges. Jacqui’s husband Kerry was not in the gallery, but telephoned the police to report the alleged incident to police when Jacqui had returned home. He passed the phone to Jacqui, who told police that no members of the public, as opposed to council staff, had been in the gallery.  Jacqui said that Martin Davies tried to seize the phone from her hand, an act which she said was attempted theft and assault. Mr Davies, though, said to police that “at no point did I attempt to take the phone off her”.

There were no close witnesses. From the council chamber below, only heads can be seen in the gallery unless those seated there are particularly tall. When Mr Davies arrived, some officers of the planning department were at the back of the gallery, but they left during the exchanges between him and Jacqui.

This incident featured prominently in the 2013 libel trial. Mr Justice Tugendhat made several assumptions about how Jacqui Thompson and Martin Davies would have behaved. He suggested, in paragraphs 204 and 205 of his judgement, that as Jacqui had “repeatedly shown herself to be ready and willing to make allegations against Council officers when she claims to have a grievance, so if she had considered while in the Public Gallery that she had a legitimate ground to complain, I think it probable that she would have complained in the presence of all those in the Chamber.

“But even if I were wrong about that, I have no hesitation in preferring the evidence of Mr Davies. His evidence was convincingly given, and remained consistent.”

Mr Justice Tugendhat went on to say, in paragraph 207, that he found “Mrs Thompson’s complaints, assault and attempted theft, were false and false to her knowledge at the time. She was attempting to pervert the course of justice when she made her allegations to the police, and when she made her statement”.

This reference to an attempt to pervert the course of justice contributed to the post-trial decision of Jacqui’s insurers, Temple Legal Insurance, to revoke the after-the-event policy which had been taken out by Simons Muirhead & Burton, Jacqui’s solicitors, leaving her personally liable for all the costs and damages.

The filming incident which led to Jacqui’s arrest was on Wednesday June 8, 2011, when the council chair at the time, Ivor Jackson, refused permission for supporters of the Noddfa Teilo Day Centre for the elderly, Llandeilo, to present a 1,500-name petition against its impending closure. One may ask, if that is not a matter of genuine public interest, what is?

Council chief executive Mark James ordered the police to be called. Four officers arrived swiftly and arrested Jacqui in case she was about to breach the peace. She was handcuffed, hauled off to Llanelli Police Station, detained for several hours and allowed to leave only when she signed an undertaking not to try and film council meetings again.

 

Accusations on Madaxeman’s blog

Martin Milan writes a blog as the Madaxeman. After the #daftarrest, he defended Jacqui’s right to free expression, and asked Mark James if he would like to respond. Perhaps not all chief executives would rush into digital print on a site called Madaxeman, but Mr James responded with some harsh comments, to which Jacqui took exception, above all because of criticism levelled at her family, she said.

The comments are no longer in Madaxeman’s archive but included in Mr Justice Tugendhat’s judgement on the Jacqui’s libel action against Mark James, dated March 15 2013. One sentence of Mr James’ contribution reads: “Mrs Thompson and her family are well known to the Council and their actions have required Police involvement on more than one occasion. They have been running a campaign of harassment, intimidation and defamation of Council staff and members for some considerable time. This is since the Council’s Planning Committee repeatedly turned down their planning applications to develop their land at Cae Brwyn near Llanwrda for housing….”

The words ‘develop’ and ‘housing’ convey, to some readers at least, a picture of ‘a housing development’, a number of homes on a commercial development. This was not the case, because as noted above, the application was for a forestry worker’s bungalow.

 

Suit and counter-suit

Jacqui took exception to Mark James’ comments on the Madaxeman’s blog, asked for a retraction, but did not receive one.  She then opted to sue for libel – a decision with huge repercussions. Mr James was able to defend and counter-sue without any financial worries because in 2008 Carmarthenshire County Council amended its constitution to allow public money to buy indemnities for defamation cases.

Mr James’ counter suit included complaints that Jacqui had accused him of holding a slush fund and had also called him ‘Pinocchio’ after the wooden character in the classic children’s story, whose nose lengthens when he tells a lie.

Jacqui’s solicitors, Simons Muirhead & Burton, secured the services of a barrister who is better known for copyright, trademark and intellectual property law than for defamation: Christina Michalos (rated in band 4 for defamation proceedings, according to the 2016 Chambers & Partners’ ranking of lawyers and law offices). Mr James and Carmarthenshire County Council, with the indemnity funded by the public, chose Mr Adam Speker (rated in the top band, 1, for defamation). Both were attached to the same chambers, 5RB. Mr Justice Tugendhat, the libel trial judge, was also a 5RB barrister when practising as Michael Tugendhat QC.

Mr James/Carmarthenshire County Council engaged a highly esteemed barrister, in the knowledge that their publicly funded indemnity would pay, if they lost, or Jackie would pay, if they won. At least, they assumed she would be able to pay. She assumed she would be able to pay, because her solicitors had arranged after-the-event insurance cover.

 

Judge refuses trial by jury

Jacqui expected a jury trial. It did not happen. It was listed as a jury trial. The International Forum for Responsible Media blog, dated January 16 2013, listed upcoming media law cases for January to March, and said:

“There is one jury trial, in the case of Thompson v James, listed for 7 days beginning on 11 February 2013.  This is a claim brought by the author of the Carmarthenshire Planning Problems blog, Jacqui Thompson, against the chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council in relation to a letter dated 28 July 2011.  Mr James has brought a counterclaim for libel, funded by the local authority.”

Yet just before the trial was due to start, Mr Justice Tugendhat decided that there would be no jury. He, as the presiding judge, would determine the outcome.

That is now normal, because the Defamation Act 2013 removed the previous presumption in favour of jury trial. Solicitors Brett Wilson LLP explained in an article on their website dated October 8 2014, titled ‘The end of jury trials in libel claims?’ that Mr Justice Walby, who had just rejected an application by The Times Newspapers for a case to be heard before a jury, took the view that

“it was in the public interest to have the trial by Judge alone, holding that the Defendant does not ‘identify any skills, knowledge, aptitudes or other attributes which are likely to be possessed by a jury which would make it better equipped than a judge to grapple with the issues that arise and may need to be tried’.”

“Mr Justice Walby went on to say that “there are real risks of a jury verdict being unclear or misunderstood or both.” He remarked that the greater the public interest, the greater the need for trial without a jury as this would provide for a reasoned judgment.”

Using this line of reasoning, it is hard to envisage any circumstances when a jury would definitely possess more skills, knowledge, aptitudes or other attributes than a learned judge!

The Defamation Act 2013 did not come into force until January 1 2014, almost a year after the Thompson-James case was heard in February 2013, so Mr Justice Tugendhat’s decision to refuse jury trial, late in the day, was an unwelcome surprise to Jacqui and her legal team.

 

Mr Justice Tugendhat’s judgment

The boundary between free speech and libel is somewhat of a moveable feast. A great deal depends on the judge’s assessment of motives. Mr Justice Tugendhat could not discern any motive other than a wish to harass Mr James and the county council – not genuine political comment, not a desire to inform the public.

In Mr Justice Tugendhat’s opinion, Jacqui had engaged in an unlawful campaign of harassment, defamation and intimidation targeted against Mr James and other council officers (paragraph 423 (i)), and her motive was revenge (paragraph 406).  The judge’s decision that the motive was revenge, following the county council’s refusal of applications for planning permission for a forestry worker’s bungalow, seems to stem from the fact that he could not see any other possible motive.

 

Appeal fails

Permission to appeal against the judgement was refused except for one small point relating to the interpretation of ‘slush fund’, and in May 2014 Lord Justice Longmore wholly agreed with Mr Justice Tugendhat that the term ‘slush fund’ implied money available to fund corrupt purposes, and that no such fund existed.

In Jacqui’s view, she used the term ‘slush fund’ to refer to the council’s alteration to its constitution in 2008, to allow public money to indemnify libel claims brought by staff or councillors – a state of affairs which the Wales Audit Office’s assistant auditor-general, Anthony Barrett, declared unlawful in January 2014.

The restricted grounds for appeal, and the fate of the appeal, highlight for me the lack of depth in the trial. It was all about semantics, debates over the meaning of words, and colossally expensive debates at that.

Was it wise to criticise Mark James, or before that Eifion Bowen and Jonathan Fearn, by name in the absence of hard evidence? No, it was not. But since then, evidence of inconsistencies in Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning decisions have come to light. The inconsistencies seemed to arise from an institutionalised acceptance that the status of the applicant is a valid consideration. That is changing, but then planning committee meetings are now webcast for all to see.

 

We have no option, says council

The Herald asked Carmarthenshire County Council three questions:

  • Is the chief executive considering whether to draw a line under the past litigation and stop pursuing Mrs Thompson for a bill which is larger than her total financial resources?
  • In what ways does pressing Mrs Thompson for payment benefit the council’s reputation in Wales and the wider UK?
  • Is the council not concerned that the current police investigation into Mrs Thompson for harassment and perverting the course of justice could make it appear excessively hostile to criticism, in the eyes of the general public?

 

In response, the council has issued the following statement:

“Mrs Thompson initiated the action after bringing defamation proceedings both against the Council and Mr James in his capacity as its Chief Executive. This action was defended and won overwhelmingly.

“Costs would usually have been recovered from Mrs Thompson’s insurers, however they withdrew from this citing a lack of good faith on her part.

“The council therefore had no option other than to pursue Mrs Thompson directly for the costs incurred after successfully defending itself in proceedings brought by her.

“It is standard procedure for the Council to pursue any debts against it, it has the responsibility to the council taxpayer to do so.

Whether Mrs Thompson has the means to pay will be something for the court to consider.”

PDR

Wales’ Answer to a Sicilian Cartel? Where? Oh, Carmarthenshire!

Outgoing incumbent Christopher Salmon’s reflections, after defeat by Dafydd Llywelyn in the election for Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Commissioner, were gracious and contemplative, but his comments suggest that one county council, Carmarthenshire, was a painful thorn in his side.

Recounting the few aspects of the job he would not miss, Mr Salmon wrote that a certain county council was on the list:

“Carmarthenshire County Council.  Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors.”

This is from the man who was Police and Crime Commissioner for four years.

These words are, if anything, harsher than those which landed Llanwrda blogger Jacqui Thompson into terrible trouble with the county council, leading to a lost libel claim and a massive bill which she cannot pay because her no-win no-fee insurer revoked the policy after Mr Justice Tugendhat gave her the verbal equivalent of savage mauling.

Jacqui objected to the county council’s chief executive, Mark James, criticising her on the ‘Madaxeman’s’ blog for a “campaign of harassment, intimidation and defamation”.  Mr James said on the  blog that the “campaign” followed the planning committee’s refusal to allow them to “develop their land at Cae Brwyn near Llanwrda for housing”.

The use of the word “housing”, which to me suggests more than one dwelling, is emotive because, as I understand it, the application was for a forestry worker’s bungalow.

In response to Jacqui Thompson’s decision to accuse Mr James of libel – a decision which, in the light of later events, backfired disastrously – Mr James set about making a counter-claim, citing words such as “slush fund” and “Pinocchio” which had appeared in Jacqui’s blog. He was protected from financial loss by the indemnity granted to him by Carmarthenshire’s councillors – an indemnity which the Wales Audit Office concluded was unlawful.

Jacqui Thompson lost, Mark James won. The implication from the judgement is that the county council is a shining beacon of democratic accountability.

But in the view of the departing Police and Crime Commissioner, it is Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel.

PDR

Whatever Happened to the Ideal of Public Service?

Whatever happened to the ideal of public service?

Standing back a minute from the immediate furore about illegal activities in Carmarthenshire County Council, a question which hangs suspended above our heads is:

When the council is slashing £30-million-worth of services over three years because there is allegedly no alternative, why does it continue to throw money and time in defence of a chief executive who chooses to use public funds to buy an indemnity so he can afford to counter-sue a resident for libel, and who chose to leave the local government pension scheme which his own council administers, but who received the amount that formerly would have been paid in employer’s contributions –  in cash, available to spend immediately, instead of being locked up in a pension fund until retirement?

Legal advice is beyond the financial reach of most of us, as it can cost several hundred pounds per hour, into the thousands of pounds to tap the wisdom of the most successful legal brains. Yet Carmarthenshire Council has obtained legal advice from a London barrister to try and bolster its position, AFTER receiving the decision of the Wales Audit Office that these two particular spending decisions are unlawful. If it can be proven that the barrister, Mr Tim Kerr QC, provided the advice free of charge, my assumption would of course be unfounded. The argument about misplaced time and effort would remain, though. The council’s counter-attack absorbs energies that would be better devoted to the weighty task of rebalancing the county’s finances to spend less on vanity construction projects so that more can be pumped into services which make the difference between a miserable and an adequate quality of life.

The unpleasant situation suggests to me that to an excessive extent the Executive Board, who have protected the chief executive, Mr Mark James, like a posse of bodyguards, have had their current priorities guided away from serving the entire population of the county, and towards expensive ‘reputation management’ for a single individual.

Of course individuals should be protected, but the Executive Board is taking its duty of care to an extreme that now seems indefensible, considering that other individuals, blogger Jacqui Thompson among them, have been pilloried for daring to criticise the council’s activities and decisions. It seems that for the Executive Board of 10, led by Labour’s Kevin Madge, it is more important to protect a single handsomely rewarded personage, than to heed the damaging findings of Anthony Barrett, the assistant auditor general for Wales.

Apart from Kevin Madge, the members of the Executive Board are:

  • Tegwen Devichand (Labour), Dafen
  • Pam Palmer (Independent), Abergwili
  • Keith Davies (Labour), Kidwelly
  • Jeff Edmunds (Labour), Bigyn
  • Colin Evans (Labour), Pontamman
  • Meryl Gravell (Independent), Trimsaran
  • Jim Jones (Independent), Y Glyn
  • Mair Stephens (Independent), St Ishmael
  • Jane Tremlett (Independent), Laugharne Township

In public life, criticism is part of the expression of democracy.

by Pat Dodd Racher

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