Friday, 13 November 2009

Why Can't We Take Independent Legal Advice?

Last night at Council - actually this morning as the meeting went on until nearly 1a.m.! - I requested that we take independent legal advice to clarify whether Medway Council has acted lawfullly in deciding to close St John's Infant school.

My concern is that officers replaced one of the school organisation principles, which our policy framework requires Cabinet to follow, with a different aim and falsely stated to Cabinet that it was one of the school organisation principles.

This is what I said to Council:

"Last Friday we learned from the Medway Messenger that St John's campaigners were considering a legal challenge to the closure of their school.

Given that, I think the wording of this motion is unfortunate, since it implies we accept that this is a matter for Cabinet. I don't agree, because it is us as a Council who set the policy framework, and that requires Cabinet to apply the school organisation principles.

However, it seems that our officers were not happy with one of those school organisation principles, since it only allowed the gradual amalgamation of infant and junior schools.

Instead, they developed a different policy, one which could be used to justify the closure of any infant school, and falsely told Cabinet that it was one of the school organisation principles. They used that policy to try and close St Peter's. They are using it now to try and close St John's. And I fear they may use it to try and close St Nick's.

Given the legal risks, I have to say I am surprised that our monitoring officer has taken such a relaxed attitude to this. It certainly contrasts with the position she took with respect to my ward colleague earlier in this process.

I don't believe that passing this motion will help St John's, and I do not support it. What might help St John's would be for this Council to take independent legal advice on whether it is lawful for officers to ignore a principle in the policy framework and advise Cabinet to follow a different policy instead.

If our monitoring officer will not take such advice, and this Council loses a judicial review in consequence, I would question whether she should advise us further."


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