Today’s Guest Author is justice campaigner and complaint advocate Neil Wilby, who has been following events in the Police-funded civil litigation against two <em>North Yorks Enquirer</em> contributors – Tim Hicks and Nigel Ward.
8 FEBRUARY 2016 | BY Neil Wilby FOR North Yorks Enquirer
Firstly, this dispute principally concerns the widely publicised ‘Grandma B’ case in which both North Yorkshire Police and York City Council have been criticised heavily over the treatment of disabled World War Two veteran, Barbara Hofschröer. Her son, Peter, has been fighting for justice, on behalf of his mother, since 2008.
Secondly, two citizen journalists who write for the website news magazine, North Yorkshire Enquirer, are also defendants in what appears to be an attempt to silence them from publicising the shortcomings of the police, and other public authorities. The two scribes, Tim Hicks and Nigel Ward are best known for their work exposing scandals involving the late Peter Jaconelli, for many years the face of the seaside town of Scarborough, and Sir Jimmy Savile.
Thirdly, this civil action has been publicly funded on the authority of Julia Mulligan, the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire (NYPCC). This move, which many believe is unlawful, and a grotesque waste of public money, is already calculated to have cost taxpayers a sum approaching a million pounds.
There are nine claimants listed on court papers accessible to the public. They have been identified as three serving police officers and six civilians (one retired police officer, a former Police Authority chair, a former Council social worker and three Hofschröer family members). The direct legal funding this group has received already is believed to be in excess of £250,000 or £27,750 each, give or take small change. The precise figures have been requested from both the police, and the NYPCC, but they have elected to break freedom of information law rather than disclose the latest invoices from their lawyers. An earlier disclosure put the lawyers’ fees at £161,000 up to the end of August, 2015.
The three serving police officers are the Chief Constable, Dave Jones; the Deputy Chief Constable, Tim Madgwick and Head of Uniformed Operations, C/Supt Lisa Winward. The retired officer is ex-Supt Heather Pearson and the former NYPA chair is Jane Kenyon-Miller. A very powerful group, indeed, who have allegedly already spent £450,000 internally in trying to stem the flow of criticism against their police force, pursuing a criminal ‘investigation’ codenamed Operation Rome. The Crown Prosecution Service twice rebuffed approaches by North Yorkshire Police to permit charges to be made against Mr Hofschöer and Mr Hicks. Mr Ward was not, at any time, subject to enquiries in connection with this matter.
On 20th January 2015 civil court papers were, ostensibly, served on the three defendants without any prior notice. The Court’s own strict rules demand that such a step is taken under what is known as pre-action protocol. Clearly, this requirement was not followed and there is no explanation yet available why the police, the NYPCC and their legal team chose to act in such a way. On any independent view it had the appearance of an ambush.
By this time, Peter Hofschröer was on remand in HMP Wandsworth having been arrested by North Yorkshire Police detectives outside the magistrates court in York on 4th December, 2014 whilst trying to file papers against other members of his famiily that he believed would protect the interest of his mother. He claims, quite reasonably, that court papers concerning the civil claim made by the nine defendants – including his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, did not reach him prior to his transfer from Wandsworth to HMP Hull.
In Nigel Ward’s case, the court papers were sent to the wrong address and left on the doorstep outside the empty property for forty-eight hours, accessible to public inspection. North Yorkshire Police, surprisingly, did not refer themselves to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) over this calamitous data protection breach, including personal data concerning their own two most senior officers. Mr Ward has, quite correctly, reserved all rights concerning the unlawful disclosure of his own personal data.
At the first hearing in Leeds High Court on 9th February, 2015 the claimants sought an interim injunction against the two journalists, and Mr Hofschröer, that effectively ordered the defendants to take down articles published about the nine claimants, and prevented each of the three defendants from contacting the claimants by phone, email or in person. It was a draconian move, and the police-funded claimants were represented at court by two barristers, Simon Myerson QC and Hannah Lynch. These legal heavyweights were instructed by leading Leeds law firm Ford and Warren (since taken over by Weightmans).
This second phase of the North Yorkshire Police action, codenamed Operation Hyson, was launched following advice given to them by ‘a leading, specialist barrister’, believed to be Mr Myerson after Rome had fallen.
The two journalists were both represented by London human rights barrister, Ian Brownhill, instructed by Nottingham solicitors, Bhatia Best. Recruited at very short notice, they performed a minor miracle in reading a huge volume of paperwork, and preparing a defence, over the weekend before the first hearing.
The outcome of that court hearing was in two parts: An interim injunction was granted against the absent, and unrepresented, Mr Hofschröer and a consent order was sealed by the judge, His Honour Mark Gosnell, which effectively maintained the status quo between the claimants and the two journalists. It meant, in real terms, that none of the articles complained about, by the claimants, were taken down by any of the defendants, including Mr Hofschröer who has no access to a computer whilst held in jail.
Mr Brownhill had also raised the issue of ultra vires that, in layman’s terms, means there is serious doubt in his mind about the legality of public funding being used by the police to finance civil litigants in a harassment claim.
Subsequent hearings over Operation Hyson took place at Leeds Combined Court, before HHJ Gosnell, in June and November, 2015. The matter was transferred from the High Court to the County Court at the first of these hearings, at which directions were given to all parties in preparation for a trial that was scheduled to begin on 7th December, 2015. At the later hearing – which was listed as a pre-trial review – summary judgment was granted in favour of the nine claimants against Mr Hofschröer after he elected not to take part in the proceedings citing breaches of his Article Six convention rights. This left the two journalists as the remaining defendants in the claim. The judge ordered that the December trial date be vacated and a further case management hearing to be listed for 20th January, 2016. HHJ Gosnell also advanced the view to counsel representing both sides that every effort to settle the matter should have been made by that date.
The January hearing, conducted in the judge’s chambers by telephone conference, resulted in no settlement being reached and, as a consequence, a trial window opened by HHJ Gosnell between April and July, 2016 with a time estimate for the final hearing of seven days. This is to allow an additional period for the claimants to file further evidence in support of their claim against the journalists, a year to the day since they issued proceedings. A trial of this duration is likely to place a further burden on the taxpayer of around £100,000, given that there is no reasonable prospect, based on recent legal precedent, of the litigation achieving its two-tier objective. A harassment finding for each of the nine claimants against each of the two remaining defendants, is the first hurdle. Only if that threshold is reached could the court consider that an injunction against two journalists was the appropriate remedy.
A press statement concerning the outcome of the January 2016 hearing was requested, from the PCC and the Chief Constable, during a recent Police Scrutiny Board meeting held a few days afterwards, but the opportunity was declined by both police chiefs. The reasons for doing so bear no examination (see Scrutiny Board podcast here).
There are also the substantial internal costs incurred by the North Yorkshire Force Solicitor, Jane Wintermeyer, and her staff, to consider. Marshalling nine claimants and instructing the two Weightmans solicitors dealing with the matter, over a period of fifteen months, would not come cheap. Mrs Wintermeyer also canvassed other high profile public officials, including a senior manager engaged with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), prior to the issue of proceedings in order to add substance to the North Yorkshire Police’s Rome and Hyson investigations.
During the January 2016 case management hearing, the issue of ultra vires and abuse of process was raised again by Mr Brownhill. He was told by HHJ Gosnell that the question of whether this claim falls to be determined as vires or ultra vires, is in his view, an arguable case. But, not one that would be heard before him in the County Court. A separate public law challenge would have to be mounted in the Administrative Court. One of the defendants, Mr Ward has confirmed that this process will soon be in train.
The Police and Crime Commissioner claims to have already sought independent legal advice on the vires issue but has, so far, not disclosed the invoices from her solicitor and counsel that would prove that point, following a freedom of information request.
Mrs Mulligan undoubtedly faces a difficult few months ahead as both the merits of Operations Rome and Hyson, and the subsequent civil court action, and the source of it’s funding, come under intense scrutiny during the forthcoming PCC election campaign.
The press officers for both North Yorkshire Police and the Police Commissioner have been offered the opportunity to comment but none has been forthcoming, so far.