Successful challenge to library closures: lip service not enough for equality duties
24 November 2011
R (Green and others) v GLOUCESTERSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL & SOMERSET COUNTY COUNCIL  EWHC 2687 (Admin) – Read judgment
In the administrative court, the decisions of two local authorities to withdraw funding for library services were held to be unlawful.
The court held that the withdrawal of a local library might indirectly discriminate against people with physical disabilities, women and the elderly. Both councils had purported to carry out equality impact assessments but the mere fact that such an assessment had been conducted did not demonstrate that due regard had been given to the public sector equality duty.
The process and substance of the decision had to be analysed. In this case the evidence suggested that the councils had failed to consciously direct their minds to their statutory obligations. The information-gathering exercise was insufficiently thorough and there was no proper analysis of the information gathered.
The duty to provide library services
As with the Brent libraries case (see previous post here) a further ground of challenge invoked the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. It was argued that the councils had failed to have regard to their duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service” under section 7.
The court held that a local authority could not fulfil its s.7 duty unless it had assessed the needs that its library service had to meet. In the absence of such an assessment, the local authority could not form a lawful or rational view of whether its service was comprehensive and efficient. However, the court could only intervene where something had gone seriously wrong in the information-gathering process. Otherwise, it was a matter for the Secretary of State to consider whether to undertake an inquiry pursuant under s.10 of the Act.
The councils in this case had clearly obtained sufficient information to make lawful decisions about future library provision. It could not be said that something had gone seriously wrong. The councils had not been required to carry out a discrete information-gathering exercise to discharge their duties under section 7, but were entitled to rely upon the expertise and experience of their professionals and other reliable sources.
Services v resources
Moreover, as with the Brent libraries case, the court held that the s.7 duty could not be divorced from resource issues arising from the country’s economic crisis. In the absence of an unlimited budget there would always be gaps in the service that could be offered and some people might have to travel further to reach a library. The court could not interfere in the councils’ judgments as to how to best deploy resources in the provision of services in these circumstances.
The court also rejected the argument that there was an inadequate public consultation process. There was no conflict between keeping an open mind and consulting on a preferred option, and the Councils were not obliged to consult on alternative means of achieving the same ends. The Councils had not been shown to be unwilling to reconsider their preferred option in the light of the consultation.
Impact of the decision
Despite the success of this challenge, it is questionable whether it will have much effect in stemming the tide of library closures. The court’s observations on resources clearly leave a lot of scope for councils to move on with plans to withdraw funding for libraries, notwithstanding the impact on the local community.
However, this case is a powerful reminder to public authorities that they cannot simply pay lip service to the public sector equality duty; it will not be assumed that an equality impact assessment does what it says on the tin.
Shaheen Rahman is a barrister at 1 Crown Office Row chambers.
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