Leaked emails reveal how Cromer Town Council tried to delay telling tax payers the cost of legal battle

Cromer Town Council Offices. Photo by Mark Bullimore

Cromer Town Council Offices. Photo by Mark Bullimore

Leaked emails have revealed how a north Norfolk council tried to delay telling tax payers how much it spent on a long-running court battle.

Cromer Town Council Offices and basement flat under planning dispute.Photo by Mark Bullimore

Cromer Town Council Offices and basement flat under planning dispute.Photo by Mark Bullimore

Cromer Town Council landed a legal bill for more than £31,000 after it lost a civil court case against a company which leased the basement in its town council offices at North Lodge.

The News wanted to find out how much local tax payers' money had been spent fighting the case, and submitted a freedom of information request to the council, asking for a breakdown of its own legal costs, and information about the case.

But leaked emails between the council and its lawyer shows it purposefully delayed responding to the request, and has refused it, in the hope of delaying the release of the information until after an appeal hearing.

One email, from lawyer John Scannell, read: 'My immediate thought is that we should be objecting to this request, but not until Monday 31 March [sic].

He added: 'The object of the exercise here is to push the date for disclosure back to after 8 July (ie to allow the court to decide it first), and preferably to end July [sic] by which time we should have the Court of Appeal's judgement.'

Councillors were told not to get into discussion with any members of the public, with a leaked email from one councillor reading: 'The more comments are made the more the matter will be prolonged unnecessarily.'

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Another read: 'Stories come and go and we don't want to prolong the correspondence.'

The council's lawyer had said in a leaked email about the News' freedom of information request that it was inevitable the News would refer the refusal to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) - the body that regulates requests for information.

He added: 'There will then be some delay before the ICO provide their decision. If it's in our favour, then all is well and good. If it goes against us, in whole or in part, we will then have a further 35 days to provide the information requested.'

He said there were various exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act which could be relied on, but added he could not guarantee the council might not have to disclose the information, or at least some of it, at some stage.

But he added: 'If our appeal is successful, the damage will have been more than neutralised.'

In its official response to the News, the council said a 'public airing' of the parties' legal costs and the way the costs had been accrued and how they might eventually fall, depending on the Court of Appeal's decision, was 'undesirable', and potentially prejudicial to either or both parties.

It said only once the cost issue had been resolved by the court could the council assess its own costs.

It added: 'Once the outcome of the case is known, we will be happy to provide a full summary of the case, and the council's reasons for defending it, and appealing the county court judge's decision, together with costs information.'

It is believed the appeal hearing will be in July.