Walberswick: Judge finds in favour of parish council as he calls for an end to long running feud
PUBLISHED: 12:46 15 August 2013 | UPDATED: 12:46 15 August 2013
A long running feud between a parish council and a number of villagers is back in the spotlight after a judge called for an end to the “unhappy and wasteful affair”.
David Farrer QC made the plea as he dismissed an appeal by Walberswick resident Stephanie Harvey, who had accused the authority of “acting in a covert and unaccountable manner” after refusing to answer a series of correspondence related to various requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
The ongoing problems in the picturesque village - a long time hideaway for the rich and famous - were first reported last year by the EADT.
Last night Mrs Harvey said she disagreed with the ruling and would be appealing against Judge Farrer’s dismissal and taking the matter to a second tier tribunal.
The hearing was told that between December 2009 and November 2011, Walberswick Parish Council received almost 500 requests for information on a range of issues as well as scores of complaints, the vast majority of which had come from just four residents.
The clerk - Jane Gomm - was forced to far exceed her maximum authorised working hours, the council’s costs ballooned and the council “virtually ceased to function” - culminating in the resignation of all parish councillors and their temporary replacement by county council appointees.
Judge Farrer admitted the council had to some extent contributed to the problem, including a “misguided and ill-informed” attempt in 2010 to serve “exclusion notices” on the four residents and refusing to deal with any more of their requests.
The Information Rights Tribunal heard that Mrs Harvey sent a letter to the council in January last year and asked why it had refused to deal with about 50 information requests - all from one person - “on grounds of cost”.
The council refused to give her the details she wanted, and its stance was later upheld by the Information Commissioner who, whilst acknowledging the council’s earlier failings, said Mrs Harvey’s information request was “part of an organised campaign”.
On appeal to the tribunal, Mrs Harvey said her request was “clear, entirely legitimate and very modest” and accused the council of “acting in a covert and unaccountable manner”.
Insisting the council was misleading the public and seeking to “shield itself from legitimate criticism”, she denied that she was part of any campaign.
However, attacking her request as “vexatious” the council said it had been placed under an intolerable administrative and financial burden and its members “harassed to the point of relinquishing office”.
Judge Farrer refused to find that Mrs Harvey had “colluded with others”, but added: “Parish councils are not equipped to handle a torrent of freedom of information requests...to bombard this council with an unending further stream of requests and demands seems an odd way of helping it to improve its service.”
Dismissing Mrs Harvey’s appeal, he continued: “The grossly excessive burden placed upon the resources of the council by the flood of requests, of which this was one, is the decisive consideration in any assessment as to whether it was vexatious.
“The council virtually ceased to function as an elected body in 2012 due to resignations induced by this written assault.”
Mrs Gomm, the judge said, “was obliged to devote a quite disproportionate amount of time to freedom of information requests to the detriment of all other council business.”
He said those factors, as well as the council’s plea for extra money to deal with the burden, all “demonstrated beyond any sensible doubt that further requests of the kind involved here were unjustified and an abuse of the Freedom of Information Act.”
Commending Mrs Gomm’s “admirably clear and courteous responses”, the judge pleaded for “an end to this unhappy and wasteful affair” and said any further information requests of a similar kind were likely to be viewed as vexatious and were “strongly to be discouraged”.