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High Court Rejects Barnet ‘easyCouncil’ Legal Challenge

April 29, 2013


Campaigners against Barnet council’s radical plan to outsource hundreds of millions of pounds worth of services, dubbed easyCouncil, are to take their case to the appeal court after a judge ruled their objection to a £320m contract had come too late.

Lord Justice Underhill, sitting in the high court, ruled against a severely disabled Barnet resident, Maria Nash, who challenged the north London council’s proposed contract with Capita on the basis that it failed to consult before outsourcing. She also said it had failed to comply with the public sector equality duty and the council had breached its fiduciary duty by failing to properly consider other options. He said the appeal was out of time, but found that the council had failed to consult residents.

Lawyers for Nash, whose case was backed by an alliance of concerned residents, trade unions and activist bloggers, had accused the Conservative-controlled council of creating a “smokescreen” around its alleged failure to consult residents. Counsel for Nash had told the court: “There is nothing here that comes to an even measurable distance of compliant consultation on letting a contract of this kind.”

In a verdict handed down on Monday, Underhill found the challenge had come too late after Barnet said it would outsource services in June 2011. But he found the “council never set out to consult about its outsourcing”. He continued: “The representatives should have been given the opportunity to express views or concerns about outsourcing the functions or services in question.”

Barnet is preparing to outsource services via two contracts which together amount to around £600m over 10 years, accounting for 15.5% of the council’s budget. It is one of the most radical experiments in privatisation of local authority functions in the face of deep cuts. Under the contracts, 790 full-time jobs would be transferred to the private sector. The customer services and back-office contract with Capita was due to come into effect in April, but has now been delayed pending the appeal. It is set to be followed later this year by a second £290m contract to outsource planning, cemeteries, highways, environmental health and other services.

The leader of Barnet council, Richard Cornelius, celebrated “a clear and complete victory for the council”.

“It is very good news for Barnet residents, Barnet taxpayers and, in particular, for anyone who relies on Barnet council services,” he said. “We can now get on with making budget savings of £12m a year in our back-office costs while investing in service improvements and protecting our frontline services. The alternative cuts to frontline services we would have had to make would have been horrendous.”

Cornelius urged Nash not to appeal.

“This judicial review has already cost the council in excess of £300,000 and I would rather be spending that money on services to residents,” he said. “The applicant’s legal costs are also being met from the public purse as she is legally aided.”

“We are going to appeal,” said Gerald Shamash, solicitor for Nash. “There is a very damning finding in the judgment over the failure of Barnet to consult. He found against them in relation to that and he found against us in relation to delay.”

He said the challenge would focus on whether the case was really out of time since the final decision to award the contract to Capita only came on 6 December 2012.

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