The High Court hearing brought by library users against Northamptonshire County Council’s plans to close 21 of its libraries came to a close yesterday (Friday).
Campaigners fighting to save the libraries will know in the coming weeks whether the local authority must go back and reconsider its plan to shut down the libraries.
After two days of legal arguments Justice Yipp has gone away to make her judgement about whether the budget decisions made by the council in February and March this year were unlawful.
If she finds they were, the legal ruling could throw a big financial spanner in the works of the county authority which is currently fighting to stay afloat and needs to save up to £70m by next April to balance its budget.
At yesterday’s (July 27) judicial review hearing at Birmingham Administrative Court the council’s barrister Peter Oldham tackled the various arguments made by the two legal teams representing an infant user of under-threat Desborough library and John Connolly, a member of St James’ library.
The grounds for their legal claim centre around assertions that the libraries consultation which happened between October 2017 and January this year was ‘so unfair as to be unlawful’; that the authority failed to consult properly about the closure of the children’s centre which are housed within some libraries; that its analysis of the library closures was primarily concerned with finances which is an ‘unlawful approach’ and that the council failed to carry out a proper needs assessment.
The legal team for Connolly also said that the authority acted ‘irrationally’ in its decision making by not taking into account the possibility that it might have to pay back a £1.1m DfE grant attached to the provision of children’s centres if it closes the libraries.
The annual saving if NCC closes all 21 libraries is estimated at about £419,456.
The county authority’s barrister Peter Oldham QC made regular references to the council’s financial crisis throughout his defence and quoted a witness statement from the authority’s finance director Mark McLaughlin.
He said: “There is no money available to put into the libraries budget.
“If there is one point that relief is unrealistic then that would be it.”
Relief is a legal remedy made by the court.
Giving reasons why the judge should not rule the council’s decision unlawful he said: “Plenty of people are going to be affected by the process being dug up, especially with regards to the expression of interest for independent libraries.”
He added: “If we are required to revisit this matter there is no guarantee that we could stick with option two and we may have to reconsider everything.”
The Judge replied: “I think that might be seen as a threat.”
The QC denied this was his intention.
Option two, which the councillors opted for was to close 21 libraries.
Option three was to close 29 libraries – leaving only Northamptonshire’s eight largest town libraries open.
Throughout the two-day hearing both legal teams used various case law to try and convince the judge of their argument.
Justice Yipp will issue a written judgement in the coming weeks.
She told the court she was very busy as the Queen’s Bench Division was under resourced, but understood the urgency of the situation.