Monday, 17 December 2012

Friern Barnet Library Court Case - Day 1

I spent the day at Barnet County Court observing the proceedings as Barnet Council began their court case to evict the Friern Barnet Peoples Library.

The proceedings started with lengthy legal debates as to whether the defence could alter their hearing to include a defence that the eviction would breach article 10 & 11 of the European Human rights act. These protect the right of free speech and fredom of assembly.  Not being a lawyer, the nuances of it passed me by. Barnet Council opened by saying it was too late to include these arguments. The judge offered an adjournment. Suddenly it became alright and there was enough time. Then there was discussion as to whether Barnet may get a possession order, but allow the Peoples library to stay until the end of January. As no one trusts Barnet to do the decent thing and negotiate in good faith, this seems a bit of a non starter (although the judge seemed to like the idea). The defence seemed to suggest and adjournment of decision until the end of January may be in order. 

Once all of the legal points were sorted out, amid much whinging from the Barnet Council Lawyer that the defence hadnt given him enough time and a lengthy and pointless debate about who was a defendent, Barnet Council put up their two star witnesess.

The first was Suzanna Lewis, who I believe is a former estate agent, who advises the Council on its commercial property portfolio. She made a bad start. When asked to confirm her name, she said "erm, Susan Ellis". She then got very flustered and the judge, who appears to be very jovial, got her a drink of water and asked her to sit down for a minute. The prosecution then asked some nice questions (she's on their team, so he clearly would). The Defence lawyer then started. She wasn't quite so nice. Poor ms Lewis (or is that Ellis), was very flustered, but had to admit that the Council have been able to get access to the Library whenever they wanted and that the occupation had not actually caused any problems. She got off the stand and seemed highly relieved to still be alive. The judge clearly felt sorry for her and did at one point suggest that the prosecution barrister be a bit nicer to her.

Next up was the assistant director responsible for libraries. His name is Bill Murphy. I got a little bit cross with Bill (although I couldn't say anything). He wasn't quite as straightforward with his account of the meetings between residents and Council officials as he could have been. I was there so I probably had a little bit of a better insight into how he was spinning the facts than the judge. Given that the Council had opened by saying the occupiers of the library had no case for defence, I was puzzled as to why he was so economical with the facts.

We then adjourned. I had a conversation with Bill. He is a consultant and he's off in March. This measn that whoever comes in will have no clue as to what has been going on. Bill is proud of his achievements in Barnet. He said "I've done what I can, you don't realise the pressures. We need money to run the service and we are suffering cuts".  I then pointed out that they had done nothing about my suggestion in September that they start friends groups for the libraries. His response "I have lots of other things to do" and listed an impressive list. I retorted by saying that this meant the council was under resourced and clearly needed more staff. I've met people from all walks of life. It is clear to me that Bill is not on the side of the people who pay his wages. I'm sure he's a nice bloke if you are a friend of his, but he is doing the people of Barnet no favours. He clearly knows what is going on and his performance on the stand was rather upsetting, if not entirely unexpected.

After lunch we had the defence witnesses. First up was Fion Brickwood from the campaign looking to run a community hub at the library. Until this point I was worried that the defence was not getting the better of the arguments (in the minds of people unfamiliar with the whole story). Any impartial observer (and quite clearly the Council team) would conclude that Fiona wiped the floor with Mr Grundy (the Barrister for the Council). She was superb. When a witness czares about an issue, is intelligent, well informed and tells the truth, they have a massive advantage. Every ruse Mr Grundy tried to use to unsettle her failed and as his Zeppelin crashed a look of abject horror appeared on the fresh face of the legal officer from Harrow who was sitting next to me. His foot starteded to shake at one point. I was a bit worried a puddle would appear on the floor.  His colleague had nicked my seat in the lunch interval and informed Rosie from the Save FBL campaign that "they were unreserved seats". I was mildly put out until I realised I could read all the texts she was sending over her shoulder. I thoroughly enjoyed that. Most amuzing. I will spare her blushes here, but the infor is filed away ! Memo to any naive council officers - if you are texting, don't sit next to a nosey blogger, wind them up and then forget they are looking over your shoulder (For the absence of doubt, I am actually slightly short sighted and couldn't have read a word on the screen which was about 4 ft away. In fact even if I could see the letters, I wouldn't have bothered. I just wanted to make our friends at the council aware that they should be a bit more circumspect in their behaviour, which in the particular context, I thought was a bit stupid and careless. There are many cases of public servants being "lazy" with regards to data security, they really must think about such issues. I once worked at a company, where our salesman sat opposite two employees of a rival company discussing a bid he was working. Needless to say, this was very useful and our company won the bid. I personally respect peoples privacy, which is why  I used the word "could". This is rather different in its meaning to "did").

Next up was Pete Phoenix, the front man of Occupy in Barnet. Mr Grundy suggested he was a "professional activist". mr Phoenix objected as he said he doesn't get paid. At the suggestion of the Judge, experienced was deemed a better term. Mr Phoenix explained how marvellous the reopened library was. Strangely Mr Grundy didn't disagree. In fact Mr Grundy seemed to use the defence that Mr Phoenix had done too good a job and further protests were unnecessary. All rather odd.

Last up was Barnet resident Keith Martin. The judge seemed to approve of Mr Martin. He's a retired accountant. She shared his passion for the 43 bus. Mr Grundy again tried to portray Mr Martin as a dangerous subversive, but by now his heart wasn't in it.

We had a five minute recess, then the summing up. Mr Grundy said that because Occupy had been slung out of St Pauls Courtyard by the Court of Appeal, the Judge had no choice but to do the same at the Library. The defence Barrister read out a list of  "aggrevating facts" at St Pauls, sited as the key facts that didn't exist in Friern, such as public nuisance, blocking the highway, health concerns, preventing people gouing to church.  She explained that the Prosecution had conceded that the protestors at the Library were covered under articles 10 & 11 of the EHR act. The point was agreed to it was just deciding how to balance their rights with those of the council. The Council defence seems to be that there may be an as yet unidentified community group, who may wish to use the building but are deterred by the protest. Given that no such group has been identified, it is a rather shaky reason in my opinion. 

We reconvene at  noon tomorrow to get the judgement or determination. I suspect that the minimum the defence will get is a stay of execution until the end of January to try and sort out a proper license for the building. If I were the judge, I'd adjourn the decision until the end of January and say that if either side doesn't act in good faith that will colour the determination.  The only valid concern is that if another group did appear, the council may not be in a position to evict the current occupiers if the case is struck out completely. 

The real shame is that Barnet Council have scored a massive own goal. They could have got a huge level of good will and a library with far lower running costs than before had they embraced the Save Friern Barnet groups proposals. As it is we've had four days in court and a pointless and expensive legal case. 

On Friday night I performed a set of music at the Library with my band the False Dots, as part of an open mic night. We had young and old, peopel with learning difficulties and people without. A great night was had by all. This was a true community event. Here's a video shot of the last two numbers in our set.

Would the community in Barnet really benefit if this space was shut and closed?

1 comment:

#Te said...

Thanks for the post, I am abroad at the moment and this is the best report I have read on the case.. Hope your right in your assessment that the judgement might be postponed until Jan, that would at least give us a bit more time... Thanks again.. #Te