Northumberland council’s £9k legal bill

Rothbury. 'Picture by Jane Coltman
Rothbury. 'Picture by Jane Coltman

A north Northumberland parish council has racked up legal bills of almost £9,000 since September after feeling forced to defend itself against ‘harassment’ from a resident.

At last night’s meeting of Rothbury Parish Council, it was revealed that the body owes a firm of solicitors £8,927 so far, having sought legal advice just two months ago. Rothbury’s precept, the tax levied from parish residents to fund services, for this entire financial year is £52,000, with the legal bill amounting to almost a fifth of that.

It follows more than three years of issues relating to a member of the public, who has reported the parish council to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), Northumbria Police, the external auditors and Northumberland County Council, all of whom decided to take no further action.

At the October meeting of the council, it was reported that the external audit has not yet been completed due to someone complaining about it. The audit normally costs around £240, but this year the bill is likely to be in the region of £1,000, and it is still outstanding.

Parish and county councillor, Steven Bridgett, explained that there was ‘absolutely no other recourse’ for the parish council than to seek ‘absolutely vital’ legal advice.

“We sought legal advice because we can no longer function as a parish council,” he said. “I absolutely begrudge spending that money.”

As reported by the Gazette, a recent decision by the ICO found in the parish council’s favour, concluding that ‘complying with the complainant’s requests would result in a disproportionate and unjustified level of disruption to the council’, but at last night’s meeting, it was also revealed that the complainant has appealed this decision.

The parish council may now need to defend this at a first-tier tribunal, which will cost more money in legal fees.

Coun Bridgett said: “It doesn’t cost this person anything to appeal; it costs the taxpayer, but it doesn’t cost him anything. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but there’s no other decision we can take.

“I hate to say it’s money well-spent, because I really don’t think it is well-spent, but it’s money we’ve had to spend. We need to look to recover our costs – that’s an absolute must.”

He said that the tribunal would at least offer the parish council an opportunity to air all of the issues in public. “The residents of Rothbury will be able to get a fuller picture of what’s going on,” he added.

Chairman Coun Mark Gilson said: “The only way we can tackle it is head-on and we are taking the head-on option.”

For more from Rothbury Parish Council’s November meeting, see next week’s Gazette.