The audit office have ruled that Carmarthenshire County Council acted illegally by indemnifying its chief executive,Mark James,in a libel action involving local blogger,Jacqui Thompson.
She has been involved in a long running libel case – which is due to go to appeal – over corruption allegations in Carmathenshire Council. Mr Justice Tugenhat ruled that she had run a “unlawful campaign of harassment, defamation and intimidation” against senior officials through her blog posts. The situation escalated when she was arrested for filming a council meeting on a mobile phone.
She has been ordered to pay £25,000 damages to Mr James and is facing bankruptcy after facing a £230,000 in legal costs run up by the authority in fighting the action. The court ruling was seen as having a chilling effect on the right of bloggers to criticise and comment on local council affairs.
Even Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, expressed concern over this ruling – though it is outside his jurisdiction in devolved Britain to act.
Now Anthony Barnett, the Wales Audit Office auditor has ruled – see BBC report – the indemnity of £23,217 is unlawful. For good measure has says a payment of over £16,000 in lieu of a pension to Mr James is also illegal.
His draft report says “I draw attention to the matters disclosed in note 6.50 to the accounts in relation to (i) remuneration totalling £16,353 paid to the Chief Executive in lieu of employer pension contributions; and (ii) £23,217 of expenditure incurred in granting an indemnity to the Chief Executive to bring a libel counter-claim against a claimant. These transactions are considered to be unlawful.”
Carmarthenshire County Council are furious and say they had taken legal advice that it was perfectly OK to use public money for staff to become involved in suing bloggers.
Its spokesman made it clear in a statement to the BBC: “Regarding the issue of the indemnity to an officer of the council to take action for libel, we would like to make it clear that we consulted the Wales Audit Office prior to the decision being taken in January 2012 and that it has taken almost two years for these concerns to have been expressed,” a spokesman said.
“We have discussed the matter with them on several occasions and in August of 2012 they indicated, in response to questions from a third party, that they agreed that the council had the legal powers to grant the indemnity.
“It is disappointing that they have now expressed a different view so late in the day, and too late for the council to act upon it.”
The consequences of this ruling are two-fold. It must question whether the council should continue to provide an indemnity to Mr James in the current appeal.
It also sends a much wider warning to senior council officials – that they should think more than twice before using public money to pursue people who are critical of them. I don’t know the rights and wrongs of the issues in her blogs, but I do think a public authority should not use public money to crush them. This is a victory for those who support free speech and unfettered debate on matters of public interest.