Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The People's Library: today's verdict

Occupier Phoenix after the hearing, interviewed by Australian radio news

We returned to court today to hear the verdict on the application made by Barnet Council to claim possession of the occupied library in Friern Barnet - the People's Library. Judge Patricia Pearl warned the court that it would take an hour to read out her findings. 

The judge repeated her observation of the previous day in which she noted that the library supporters had been 'most co-operative and peaceful both in and around the court'. She also remarked on the widespread media interest - local, national, and international - that the case had attracted.

Judge Pearl then proceeded to read the details of her judgement, starting with a history of the library campaign, and all the events leading up to the present occupation and consequent application from the local authority to claim possession of the building.

There were two main arguments under consideration: whether or not the council had effectively given the occupiers license to remain, and whether or not the repossession of the library would constitute a breach of the human rights act, in particular Articles 10 and 11, dealing with the right to freedom of expression, and the right to peaceful assembly and association with others.

Next the judge dealt with the listing of the library under the provisions of the new localism act, as a community asset, meaning that if the council tries to sell it, it must first consider bids from community groups.

Returning to the issue of whether or not the human rights of the protestors would be infringed by a repossession order, it was agreed that removal from the library would constitute an infringement, but that this was qualified by the greater risk of prejudicing the authority's obligation to offer the vacant property to local community groups who may wish to exercise their right to bid for the building, under the terms of the localism act. Such an infringement, in other words, is justified.

To a lay person sitting in the court, this seemed to be an extraordinary decision, in two ways: first of all  that Articles 10 and 11, regarding the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association are considered to carry less weight than a newly enacted requirement for local authorities in the UK, and second that the purpose of the community asset listing was being applied, seemingly perversely, against the very circumstance it was supposed to facilitate - by acting in good faith to protect the library from sale by Barnet Council, the campaigners were punished by losing their right to remain in the very building they were seeking to secure for the community. 

By the logic of this judgement, if the campaigners had not had the building listed, presumably they would have been left in occupation, their rights to protest protected by Articles 10/11.

Except of course that Barnet's use of the community asset listing was totally cynical, and presented a convenient line of challenge. There never has, and never will be any real desire on behalf of the authority to allow a community group to take control of this building. The council will go through the pretence of entertaining bids from community groups, and find reasons to reject them, and then put the building on the open market, ready for the highest bidder. The property is worth an awful lot more that any price any local group could afford.

But all is far from lost: the judge has required that enforcement of the possession order must not be enacted before the end of a six week period, and local campaigners will hope to apply for a license to remain in the library as interim caretakers, which of course the council will do everything to avoid. 

More importantly, today's judgement will be the subject of an application to the Court of Appeal, and the defendent's legal team appears confident of having a strong case to present.

library campaigner and defendant Keith Martin leaves court unbowed - and relieved that Barnet Council did not press for costs ...

More tomorrow: Mrs Angry has had more than enough of today, in all sorts of ways.

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