The curious legal case of the Snooty Fox and recently abolished East Northamptonshire DC has implications for local government up and down the land. In an astonishing announcement, the new North Northamptonshire Council has admitted that its predecessor authority’s decision to prosecute a pub landlord over alleged food hygiene offences was ‘an abuse of process and should never have occurred’. This is the third time in history and the first time since 1861 that an abuse of process claim has been successful, according to the Law Society. The successful legal team acting for defendant Geoff Monks commented that the case should ‘give other non-CPS prosecuting authorities pause for reflection before embarking on disproportionate actions’.
With a new and high profile precedent, it is worth all councils noting that ‘abuse of process’ could become a more common claim following prosecutions. I will leave that to the legal experts to consider. The point that struck me more, from my involvement with local government re-organisation, is how newly created councils take on historic liabilities of their predecessors, with seemingly no recourse. When a business is acquired, the vendor is under an obligation to disclose potential future liabilities, and would be expected to provide warranties against any that could arise. In the case of local government however, it seems that a more than 20-year-old legal dispute can be kept under wraps by a council being abolished, and left as a nasty surprise for the new council.
The impact of this cannot be underestimated. A newly created unitary council has challenges enough to establish new arrangements that are not only safe and legal, but also offer something of a new vision for the area and potential improvements to services. There are new relationships to forge, new members in charge and new officers getting their feet under the table. It seems very unfair that instead of all the things you want to focus on, the new council has to first clean up an historic liability, with major reputational and financial implications.
With the modern council now likely to have complex legal and financial arrangements, such as in shared services and joint procurement, the Government must look at the law around local government re-organisation and consider what more can be done to require predecessor councils to resolve outstanding liabilities and not hand them on, like a hand grenade, to newly created authorities. In the meantime, I would urge that local government friends in North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Somerset, and anywhere else now or in the future going through local government reorganisation, carry out a ‘Snooty Fox’ audit of skeletons in the cupboard.
Andy Sawford is a local government consultant and former MP