Freelance forces council to reveal accounts information

By Dominic Ponsford

A journalist who took a county council to the High Court failed in
his bid to change the law, but has forced the authority to hand over
its accounts information.

Richard Orange, who represented himself, scored a limited victory as
Mr Justice Leveson agreed he had raised “serious issues” that would
have to be settled in a court of law at some stage.

The case
ended this week when Lincolnshire County Council agreed to let Orange
see all the information he had originally asked for.

Justice
Leveson threw out a demand from the council that Orange, who lectures
and runs a small news agency, should pay £1,500 costs.

Justice Leveson said: “There are important issues here and I’m satisfied that there should be no order to costs.”

Orange
had gone to the High Court seeking permission to mount a judicial
review challenge against the council over what he said was its failure
to meet its legal obligation to make its accounts available for public
inspection for 20 working days every year.

Orange said he found
it impossible to access the council’s 2003/2004 accounts within the 20
days because of the difficulty in accessing information stored in over
100 locations across the county.

He also challenged the legality
of the council using the Data Protection Act and Human Rights Act to
withhold information. The council had cited these laws to remove the
names of contractors and consultants from accounts it had supplied to
Orange.

Although Justice Leveson did not grant Orange permission
to go to full judicial review, he said: “There are issues of principle
here and they are better sorted out than allowed to drag on.”

“I’m not going to burden this extremely busy court deciding academic issues,” he added.

“I’m concerned about the 20-day period, but equally understand the council’s problems if they keep records in different places.

“I’m
very concerned about the Human Rights Act. It’s by no means clear to me
that [it] would take precedent over… the interests of the public in
being able to see public accounts.”

He added: “There are some issues of principle that will at some time have to be resolved”.

Judge
Leveson and the county council barrister agreed that the Data
Protection Act did not provide grounds for councils to withhold
accounts information.

After the case, Orange said: “The judge
admitted that this is something which is going to have to be dealt with
at some stage by the courts – it can’t be in the public interest for it
to be left in no-man’s land.

“If people don’t go and look at
their council’s finances, there is no way the public can hold local
authorities and councillors to account.”

Orange said he has
already encountered similar problems accessing the 2004/2005 county
council accounts and had the Human Rights Act cited by the council. He
said he will be interested to see if the council changes its position
in the light of this week’s hearing.

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