Legal eagles

Back in November (See Idle Threats) this column recorded the various threats of legal action received from Cllr Brian Hall after an article I had written questioning seven claims he had made for travelling expenses appeared in the Mercury of 24 March 2000.

These claims included such things as "Meeting RB-E [Roger Barrett-Evans]re Pembroke Dock museum" and "meeting Chief Exec".

My argument was that these were not "approved duties" as required by law.

I was extremely careful to emphasise my belief that Cllr Hall had made these claims out of ignorance of the law and not with any intent to defraud the council.

The first solicitor's letter was dated 30 March and that was swiftly followed by a second dated 6 April which drew our attention to the Local Authorities (Members Allowances) Regulations 1991 which set out the various duties - attendance at council meetings, Chairman's attendance at civic functions etc - which carry an entitlement to claim expenses.

In addition to the list, Section 16(b) of the regulations defines as an "approved duty": "any other duty approved by the body [the council], or any duty of a class so approved, for the purpose of, or in connection with, the discharge of the functions of the body, or any of its committees or sub-committees."

"If your columnist … had bothered to read these regulations in full", the letter thundered, he would "clearly have seen" that the seven journeys were approved duties within the meaning of the regulations."

Naturally, I had read the regulations and, as "the body" had never expressly sanctioned duties of the type undertaken by Cllr Hall, I was firmly of the view that they were not "approved duties".

Then, early in May, a communication arrived from Cllr Hall's solicitors enclosing a letter from County Council Chief Executive, Mr Bryn Parry-Jones confirming that: "the seven duties referred to were approved in accordance with the Council's scheme of allowances".

The relevant part of the Council's scheme of allowances, adopted by the authority in July 1995, reads: "Attendance by the leader or other group leaders (or their nominated representative(s)) at such meetings approved by the Chief Executive for the proper discharge of the business of the authority".

Our solicitors described the Chief Executives letter as "obviously not helpful" while the opposition sounded cock-a-hoop.

"We have checked with the County Council and sent you confirmation by the Chief Executive that these seven duties were "approved duties". As it was for the Chief Executive to approve these duties, how can your clients apparently question that these were not "approved duties"?

"We look forward to hearing from you within the next five days with the appropriate retraction and apology…………. failing which our client will be commencing proceedings against your clients for damages for defamation of his character". Their letter concluded.

At that point I feared the towel was about to be thrown in.

But I managed to persuade our solicitors that "approved duty" and "duty approved by the Chief Executive" were not coterminous.

The Law required the body to approve a class of duty whereas the Council's resolution of July 1995 specified a class of person (the Leader or his representative(s)).

Clearly the authority did not have the power to adopt any scheme of allowances it liked - it had to act within the law.

Even if I was wrong about that narrow legal point, and the council's scheme would stand up to legal scrutiny, there was still the requirement that whatever scheme the must be implemented properly.

There are four elements to the Council' scheme.

First there must be a meeting.

Whether "meeting" can be construed as any encounter between two or more people, or whether it has some more technical meaning e.g. properly constituted meeting, is a moot point.

But on the second requirement there can be no argument: whoever attends the meeting must be either the leader or his nominated representative(s).

As it was claimed that Cllr Hall a representative, how was he nominated?

Thirdly, if the leader requires a representative, he must presumably, have some interest that needed representing.

And finally, the Chief Executive must give his approval.

I suggested we write to Cllr Hall's solicitors seeking clarification on these points.

After much toing and froing two further copy letters were received.

In the first Mr Parry-Jones confirmed that he had approved the duties and that this had been done "orally".

In the second, written after we had requested details of the nomination process, he wrote: "I am somewhat surprised that [Newscom's solicitors] are apparently questioning further the circumstances of the relevant approved duties. As both you and they no doubt appreciate, I have wide discretion in this context"

On the specific question of how Cllr Hall had come to be nominated by the then leader Eric Harries, he wrote: "You will appreciate that the way in which all local authorities work involves the Chief Executive managing inter alia the interface with members and as such, regular meetings and discussions take place between me and the Leader several times a week. At these meetings/discussions, I am able to determine the Leader's views and wishes on such matters as member attendance at various meetings, either ad hoc or continuing. In these cases, it was agreed that Cllr Hall's attendance was appropriate in relation to his local knowledge and enthusiastic support for new developments to be brought forward."

Our solicitors expressed the view that this appeared "to pull the rug" on our case.

However, after I pointed out that there were 60 members of the council and, if they each matched Cllr Hall's strike rate of seven meetings per year, it would result in 420 such attendances - rather a lot for anyone to carry round in their head - they were persuaded to write a further letter, dated 18 July, requesting details of notes of the seven meetings attended by Cllr Hall and of those between the Chief Executive and the Leader (including minutes recording Cllr Hall's nomination by the Leader)

The solicitors also asked for details of all correspondence between Cllr Hall's solicitors and Mr Parry-Jones..

By their letter of August 2, Cllr Hall's solicitors refused to provide this information, ending their letter with the threat that unless an apology and retraction was produced within the next seven days "then clearly our client will have no alternative but to seek his recourse through the courts"

It seems, that after some thought, an alternative to suing was discovered and, as they say, the rest is silence.

On December 8 I wrote to ex-Cllr Eric Harries asking if he could provide written evidence of Cllr Hall's nomination as his representative at these seven meetings, but, as yet, he has not favoured me with a reply.

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