Getting information about Fernbank Farm is made unusually difficult; what are they trying to hide?
I went to Birkenhead County Court today to get copies of documents to do with Wirral Council’s request for a possession order in the Fernbank Farm case. What I had requested was a copy of the two judgements (the first one arising from the application hearing on the 21st November 2013 and the second one from the fast track trial from February this year). I also had requested the “statement of case” and was told by letter that copies of these documents would come to £10.
When I paid the £10 I was given a copy of court orders dated 17th February 2014 (the possession order) and a court order I wasn’t aware of (that had been made without a hearing) on the 29th November 2013. I queried whether this was the one I’d asked for as the date was incorrect, but the member of staff insisted it was the right one (even though it wasn’t). I was also given a copy of the original particulars of claim (which had been attached to the claim form). This came to six pages in total.
I queried with the member of staff at the counter as to why the original claim form hadn’t been included, as the letter I had got in reply from the Court stated that a District Judge had agreed that I was entitled to a copy of the court orders and the statement of case (which I am entitled to under Civil Procedure Rule 5.4C). She insisted that the “statement of case” was just the particulars of claim and that I wasn’t entitled to any more documents beyond that which I had already received. I asked her to check the definition in the Civil Procedure Rules but she refused to do so.
I was going to the University of Liverpool library anyway, so while I was there I looked up what “statement of case” actually means. It’s defined in Part 2.3 of the Civil Procedure Rules as
“statement of case –
(a) means a claim form, particulars of claim where these are not included in a claim form, defence, Part 20 claim, or reply to defence; and
(b) includes any further information given in relation to them voluntarily or by court order under rule 18.1;”
So I printed off a copy of this and returned to the Birkenhead County Court querying why statement of case had been interpreted as meaning just the particulars of claim (especially as the statement of truth for the particulars of claim was on the claim form). I also pointed out that the court order of the 29th November 2013 requested the Claimant (Wirral Council) to “include a chronology setting out all relevant dates relating to the granting of the lease, notices given and dates by when action pursuant thereto should have occurred”. I asked why a blank defence form had been included in the earlier six pages, but not the defence, reply to the defence or the information supplied in response to this court order?
The member of staff said that they [the staff] disagreed with my interpretation of “statement of case” and that they would have to ask a District Judge which was impossible to do at that time as the Judge or Judges were on a lunch break. We waited for about an hour until she went to find a Judge (who unsurprisingly agreed with what the previous Judge had told the person who wrote the letter) and when she came back she had to provide me with the documents that she had earlier that day insisted I wasn’t entitled to which were the original claim form, the defendant’s amended defence (submitted in triplicate so she charged me for three copies), an acknowledgement of service form, blank defence form and another copy of the same particulars of claim (but this time including a map).
As this now came to twenty-five pages (instead of the original six), she insisted on charging an extra £7.50. This was despite the fact that she had given me a copy (again) of the particulars of claim (a further three pages). She insisted the second copy was an amended particulars of claim (it wasn’t, it was identical), the only difference being that she had now included a page of a map of Fernbank Farm. She also provided the amended defence in triplicate (which was three pages so therefore giving me it in triplicate meant an extra six pages). I quibbled over being charged extra for pages I had already been supplied with, but in the end I just paid the £7.50 as I can claim this back from the Birkenhead County Court in the next 6 months (as well as the original £10) using an EX160 form.
What was most telling was that I was told by the member of staff who reluctantly gave me what I paid for that I wasn’t to publish these documents on my blog! This was from the member of staff who didn’t know what “statement of case” meant!
Contempt of Court does apply to civil proceedings, however as detailed in s.2(3) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, this only applies when proceedings are “active”. Schedule 1 details that for civil cases (see sections 12-13), proceedings are “active when arrangements for the hearing are made until the proceedings are disposed of, discontinued or withdrawn”. Arrangements of the hearing of the proceedings is defined as “in the case of any proceedings, when a date for a trial or hearing is fixed”. The trial in this case was held on the 13th February 2014. The possession order given on the 17th February 2014 in Wirral Council’s favour disposed of the matter, therefore at that point proceedings were no longer active.
Even if proceedings were active (as they were prior to the 17th February 2014), there is a caveat in s.5 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 when it comes to “discussion of public affairs”. Section 5 states “A publication made as or as part of a discussion in good faith of public affairs or other matters of general public interest is not to be treated as a contempt of court under the strict liability rule if the risk of impediment or prejudice to particular legal proceedings is merely incidental to the discussion.”
There are no reporting restrictions in effect with regards to these proceedings and I am not subject to a court order preventing publication of these documents from the Birkenhead County Court. I therefore think that once again this member of staff has “got it wrong”. The Birkenhead County Court is subject to s. 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 as it is “unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right”. This includes article 10 which states:
Article 10 – Freedom of expression
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
Therefore for the reasons above (that proceedings aren’t active and even if they were that what I’m going to publish falls under discussion of public affairs) and National Union of Journalist’s Code of Conduct rule 1 which states “At all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed” I will
be writing tomorrow have written at EXCLUSIVE: How Wirral Council’s court case to evict the Fernbank Farm tenants began on the 8th August 2013 about information I have found out from reading these documents.
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