Rutland County Council could sue its own councillors

Rutland County Council offices
Rutland County Council offices
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Lawyers have advised Rutland County Council that it can sue three of its members for defamation following an investigation.

Councillors will consider whether to take action against Rutland Anti-Corruption Group founders Richard Gale, David Richardson and Nick Wainwright at a special meeting on Thursday.

The council agreed to take legal advice on the group’s actions following a meeting in October and public services law firm Bevan Brittan was instructed to carry out an investigation.

The law firm has advised the council that allegations made by the three councillors have damaged the authority’s reputation. It also said the name of the group implies there is corruption within the council.

A report by council chief executive Helen Briggs to Thursday’s meeting alleges the three councillors have made “reckless and serious allegations” which were “unsubstantiated by evidence, made with the potential to harm the reputation of officers, members and the council itself”.

The council’s lawyers said in their report that e-mails sent by the group to Mrs Briggs were “very likely to amount to harrassment”.

Concerns have also been raised by the council about the three councillors’ alleged “failure to comply with council processes which impeded the efficient operation of the council”.

Mrs Briggs’ report says her primary concerns, raised at a meeting with the head of legal services and deputy monitoring officer on October 9, were:

- The continued aggressive e-mail correspondence from members of the group to officers

- Continual accusations of corruption made against officers and members, both internally and to external third parties

- Volume of e-mail traffic to individual officers impacting upon workload

- Refusal to use scrutiny panels and attend meetings with the chief executive.

The council would be the first local authority in the country to pursue a defamation claim. This has only been possible since last year when the Localism Act gave councils the same rights as individuals.

Other options to be outlined during the meeting include financially supporting the chief executive or other officers to pursue legal action; reporting the group to the police alleging criminal harassment and malicious e-mails; ensuring the group only contacts the council through one person; considering mediation; conducting a wider independent review; or taking no further action.

Bevan Brittan said in its report: “Our initial view is that there is particular merit in considering action by the council for defamation of the council, as this would go to the root of the issue, and for an injunction against further harassment of officers, as this would be effective but require a relatively low standard of proof.”

Bevan Brittan said Rutland Anti-Corruption Group would most likely defend a defamation claim by saying it was acting in the public interest and without malice.

If the council decides to pursue legal action for defamation, it would cost at least £90,000 but the winning party should be able to recover 70 per cent of its costs.

The council has already spent £8,000 on legal fees.

The Standards Board for England, which previously carried out investigations into conduct, was abolished last year.

A statement issued to the Mercury by Rutland Anti-Corruption Group said: “We hope that this will now enable full openness and transparency that we have strived for in line with central Government’s thinking.”

Coun Gale, Coun Richardson and Coun Wainwright say they will attend the meeting. They will be entitled to vote on any motions put forward.

The council meeting will take place in the council chamber at the offices in Catmose, Oakham, at 7pm on Thursday. Members of the public can attend.

To view the report and the rest of the papers for the meeting, click here.