13/09/2009

Of Car Parks, Caravans and Councillor's commitments

The City & Council of Swansea v Christine Joyce (and others) Cardiff District Registry, Chancery Division 31 March 2009 7CF30099

This is an example of a post Doherty public law defence at first hearing, and one that succeeded where an alternative defence of estoppel didn’t.

Two Traveller families, the Joyces and the McDonaghs, had been camped on the car park at Swansea Enterprise Park, on various parts over the years (about 20). The car park was used as an overflow for events at the nearby Liberty Stadium. The Council had the freehold for the Enterprise Park. In May 2007, the Council sought to get the Joyces and McDonaghs to move from the patch they were occupying as it was likely to be needed for forthcoming events. There was no space at the one authorised site.

Following a meeting in May 2007 with Councillor Hague of Swansea Council, the Joyces moved to another, separate part of the Park. The McDonaghs were to follow. The Council put up fencing, levelled the ground, provided keys for the entrance barrier, arranged for rubbish collection and resurfaced parts of this area.

What was said at the meeting with Councillor Hague and its import was contested, and we’ll come back to this. However, the Council brought possession proceedings in July 2007 for the whole of the retail park area, including the part on which the Joyces and McDonaghs were, and against various named defendants, including these two families, and un-named others.

The Joyces and McDonaghs defended the claim on the grounds that:
1. The defendants have moved to their present location and expended time and money on improving it and otherwise acted to their detriment in reliance on a promise or assurance given in May 2007 by Councillor Hague that they could stay there for some 6-9 months, until a permanent site was available or a planning decision had been reached on whether to grant permission. Councillor Hague also raised the possibility that the present site may become permanent. This gave rise to an estoppel on the Council seeking possession.

2. The same grounds gave rise to a legitimate expectation that they would not be evicted before a suitable site was found, which would likely have succeeded as a JR ground, so can be relied upon as a defence in possession proceedings.

3. In seeking possession, the council was acting as no reasonable authority would do – the irrationality defence.

4. It is was not admitted that the Council had the necessary consent of the leaseholders to bring proceedings on their behalf.

The issue of what was said by Councillor Hague, whether he had actual or apparent authority to make such a promise and what works had been carried out by the Council in May 2007 was determined at a preliminary hearing. At that hearing it was determined that Councillor Hague had said that the families would be there for 6-9 months, that toilet and washing facilities, electricity, fencing and hardcore would be arranged and he would see what he could do about longer term permission. Councillor Hague had the apparent authority of the Council to say this (although not the actual authority). Some of the works had been carried out.

After the preliminary hearing, there was a period for settlement discussions on a consent order. This failed.

At the final hearing HHJ Jarman QC sitting as an additional judge of the Chancey Division held:

i) A meeting of the cabinet of the Council held in June 20077, at which the decision to seek possession had been made, had not been informed of the May agreement and the promises made with the apparent authority of the Council. It did not take these into account in its considerations. This failure was material to the decision to seek possession. No reasonable council could come to such a decision without having regard and giving due weight to each of the terms of the May agreement.

Following Kay v Lambeth LBC [2006] HLR 570, the council’s decision is challengable on grounds that it was a decision which no reasonable person would consider justifiable, as ‘more fully explained’ by Lord Hope in Doherty v Birmingham CC [2008] 3 WLR 636. The focus in this case was on the processes leading to the decision to seek possession. The Council’s right to seek possession was undoubted and the common law must be taken as compatible with the Human Rights Act 1988.

What weight the Council ought to have given to the May agreement in reaching its decision was not for the Court to say, but it ought to have been considered.

ii) On legitimate expectation, while there was detrimental reliance, it must be seen in the context of the limited promises in the May agreement and the different view of other councillors. A legitimate expectation would not make an eviction now, 22 months later, unjust.

iii) The same is true of the estoppel argument, for the same reasons. It would not succeed.

iv) There was evidence of the consent of the lessees.

Various other points from the Defendants on regard to policy and forthcoming guidance didn’t get anywhere.

Possession order refused in respect of the part of the Park covered by the May agreement as against the Joyces and McDonaghs.

With thanks to our friends at the Community Law Partnership/Travellers Advice Team for telling us about the case and for the transcripts.

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

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