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Putting austerity in the dock: how to fight cuts by legal means

Lee Godfrey is co-leader of the Surrey Libraries Action Movement (SLAM) and editor of SLAM’s blog. In this post, he explains how campaigners successfully challenged Surrey county council's attempt to replace paid librarians with volunteers through the courts - and how work to continue to defend the service must go on past initial court judgements.

With more and more campaigns forming to fight against the government’s cuts agenda, many are asking whether the courts have a role to play in stopping the swingeing attacks on the public sector.

We took our fight against library cuts to the High Court and won - but like other library campaigners have found, our legal success has not dealt a knockout blow. Our council intends to retake its decision and press on with its plans.

How our campaign began

The campaign - the Surrey Libraries Action Movement (SLAM) - formed in June 2011. Our group is an alliance of library campaigners, residents and trade unionists across Surrey. The group formed to campaign against Surrey County Council’s proposal to replace paid staff with volunteers, managing and delivering library services in ten Surrey communities.

SLAM ran a full campaign against the proposals throughout 2011, including protests, demonstrations, petitions signed by thousands in the affected communities, and letter-writing. Local residents asked questions and made submissions to all council meetings where the library proposals were discussed, raising serious and legitimate concerns.

The council ignored them all and pressed ahead with its plans in the face of wholesale public indignation.

People decided legal action was the only route

Previously non-political residents - people who had never taken part in any form of campaign - felt aggrieved that the council would not listen to what they had to say, and wholly unsatisfied that such a far-reaching decision could be taken without consultation and with precious little scrutiny. So when the prospect of legal action was raised - although there was reluctance and anxious debate - the final verdict of the group was decisive: the council had created a democratic deficit that only the law could remedy.

How judicial review works and why it's important to move fast

The law has it that an application for judicial review must be made promptly from the date of the authority’s decision and, in any case, within three months. Due to the research and debate required before we felt ready to take action, we instructed Public Interest Lawyers late to act on our behalf. PIL therefore lodged our application on the very last day of the three month window.

We would recommend that other campaigners act as soon as possible after the “challengeable” decision - it is easy to run out of time!

The claimants in the case were in receipt of legal aid. Although the Legal Services Commission (LSC) granted legal aid, it did insist that the affected communities made a contribution to the costs of £18,000, which was later reduced to £12,000 - still a significant amount of money to raise in a very short period of time, and the cause of much stress for campaigners.

The basis of our case was that the Council was in breach of section 149 of the Equalities Act 2010, having not shown “due regard” to its public sector equalities duty (PSED).

We argued that in removing paid staff, the council would be removing the permanent presence in the libraries that, through experience, knowledge and consistent contact, met the needs of vulnerable users (including children, the elderly and people with certain disabilities). Further, that a continual rota of volunteers working just one or two hours every other week could not, even with the best intentions, hope to replace that essential and obvious “equalities” need.

Indeed, throughout the campaign, we spoke to many residents who described the expected embarrassment of having to explain their particular needs every time they wanted to use the library.

The judgement

In his ten thousand word judgment, Mr Justice Wilkie agreed with us and ruled that the council’s decision to replace paid staff with volunteers in ten libraries across Surrey was “unlawful” and that the council was indeed in breach of its PSED. The judge further handed down an order on the 1st May 2012 quashing the council’s decision.

The fight goes on

We always knew the High Court judgment would not be the end of the story, and so it has turned out. SCC has vowed to retake its controversial decision with not one change to the original plan. The council will conduct a very brief consultation, although from what we’ve seen so far, it still seems to be showing insufficient regard to its PSED. SLAM and Surrey residents will campaign ahead of the new decision, but whether SCC again dismisses residents’ concerns remains to be seen.

The injustice of library cuts in Surrey has galvanised previously non-political residents into action. It was not library staff, library users or young children that caused the financial crisis, and many say that they should not be made to pay for it.

Challenging cuts in the courts is a tactic, and can produce good short term wins. But the High Court has a limited role, and it can not ultimately tell a local authority what it can and can not do. The fight against the ideology of austerity will only be won by organisation, political argument, and ultimately by the triumph of hope over cynicism.

Lee Godfrey is co-leader of the Surrey Libraries Action Movement (SLAM) and editor of SLAM’s blog, where more information about the legal case and campaign can be found. Lee is the Secretary of Runnymede and Weybridge Constituency Labour Party.

Find out more about other successful legal challenges to public sector cuts and privatisation here.


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