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Legal action against the Rutland Three has scary implications for democracy

Published by Andy Boddington on Friday, January 11th, 2013 at 15:31 pm

Rutland is a small and beautiful county caught up in a big and ugly row.

Council leaders and officers have been facing vocal and persistent opposition from three independent councillors who style themselves the Rutland Anti-Corruption Group. The council has had enough and has turned to its lawyers.

It is the task of lawyers to find ways of protecting the interests of its clients and Rutland’s legal advisers have come up with ways of silencing the council’s critics. Their suggested remedies have scary implications for democracy.

The lawyers’ first suggestion is that the council sues the Rutland Three for libel. No one knew that this could be done – in fact the Law Lords ruled in 1992 that a council cannot sue for libel. What the council’s lawyers are arguing is that the Localism Act conferred a general duty of competence councils. Under this a council can do anything that is legal. Suing someone is legal; ergo a council can now sue. This is an adventurous interpretation of the duty of competence – parliamentarians had intended it to allow local authorities to act commercially.

Rutland’s lawyers warn this approach is untested and likely to attract “media interest beyond the local level.” That is perhaps why at a meeting yesterday the council decided to take another of the approaches outlined by its lawyers.

It will use the Harassment Act 1997 to stop the Rutland Three from protesting. The 1997 law permits lawyers to seek an immediate court injunction on the evidence of little more than witness statements. The law has worked well on the domestic front. Hundreds of vulnerable people have been sheltered from terror and violence. But audacious lawyers extended the use of the legislation to corporate bodies, once again something parliamentarians had not intended.

Before Rutland Council uses the Harassment Act to stifle protest, it would be wise to look at the unhappy experience that those that used the law in an attempt to stifle environmental protest. And it would be wise to consider the longer term implications of quashing dissent through the courts.

I do not defend malicious, hateful – or even unpleasant – emails for a moment. I have every sympathy for staff members and councillors in the firing line. But using the full weight of the law to quash opponents will have a chilling effect on democracy.

People will become afraid to speak out. The robustness of debate will evaporate. Those in power will no longer be effectively challenged. The bright light that is democracy could all too rapidly dim in local councils across the land.

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