Jones v Swansea City Council

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
JudgeLord Templeman,Lord Griffiths,Lord Ackner,Lord Oliver of Aylmerton,Lord Lowry
Judgment Date15 November 1990
Judgment citation (vLex)[1990] UKHL J1115-1
Date15 November 1990
CourtHouse of Lords
Jones (A.P.)
(Respondent)
and
Swansea City Council
(Appellants)

[1990] UKHL J1115-1

Lord Templeman

Lord Griffiths

Lord Ackner

Lord Oliver of Aylmerton

Lord Lowry

House of Lords

Lord Templeman

My Lords,

1

The salient features of this unfortunate litigation appear from the judgments in the Court of Appeal and the comprehensive speech of my noble and learned friend, Lord Lowry.

2

This case presents some puzzling and disquieting features, namely, the enmity displayed against Councillor Jones because he was prominent in the Ratepayers' group for 1979 when a Labour leader was prosecuted for corruption: the rejection of an offer by Mrs. Jones to pay a substantially increased rent for change of use; the public display of anger and threats made by Councillor Tyssul Lewis at the council meeting on 26 April 1979; the observation by the judge that "this is not a case in which I can say that the evidence of Councillor Tyssul Lewis satisfies me that he was not motivated by malice … for reasons of personal antipathy …;" the acceptance by the judge of the evidence that nothing relevant was said at the meeting of the Labour group prior to the council meeting on 28 June 1979; and the inference that the members of the Labour group spontaneously and independently came to the same conclusion as their leader. In these circumstances, I have every sympathy with the penetrative observation of Nourse L.J. ( [1990] 1 W.L.R. 54, 86G) that to deny that it was open to the judge to infer group malice "would in my view be to disregard the realities of decision taking by councillors in local government." But the disputed events took place in 1979, the writ was not issued until 1985, and the trial took place in 1988. A second trial in 1990. raking over the unsavoury history of the Swansea City Council would be oppressive and unfair on the witnesses and any result would be suspect. Accordingly, with some misgivings I concur in allowing this appeal. The moral of this story is that a councillor and any close relative of a councillor should avoid any business transactions with the council.

Lord Griffiths

My Lords,

3

I have had the advantage of reading in draft the speech prepared by my noble and learned friend, Lord Lowry and for the reasons which he has given I would allow the appeal.

Lord Ackner

My Lords,

4

For the reasons summarised by my noble and learned friend Lord Lowry in the final two paragraphs of his speech, which I have had the advantage of reading in draft, I too would allow this appeal, restore the judgment and order of the trial judge.

Lord Oliver of Aylmerton

My Lords,

5

I have had the advantage of reading in draft the speech prepared by my noble and learned friend, Lord Lowry. I agree with it and would allow the appeal for the reasons which he has given.

Lord Lowry

My Lords,

6

This appeal is concerned with an alleged tort of misfeasance in public office by Swansea City Council ("the Council") against Mrs Margaret Elizabeth Jones (whom I shall call "the plaintiff"). The facts are set out admirably and in considerable detail by Slade L. J. in the Court of Appeal, as reported at [1990] 1 W.L.R. 54, 57, and I shall not weary your Lordships by restating them. It is enough to say that the Council owned a vacant site at 88-89 High Street, Swansea and in March 1978 advertised for tenders for a 99-year lease of the site under the heading "Development Site at High Street with permission for erection of a shop or an office and showroom." The plaintiff was in business with her husband Benjamin Jones ("Mr Jones"), then one of the councillors representing the majority Ratepayers group or party on the Council, and on 4 May 1978 she submitted the only tender, which was accepted by the Council in June 1978. The effect of the Council's planning permission (granted to itself on 23 February 1978), when read with the terms of the tender, limited the use of the site to that of an office and showroom. In September 1978 the plaintiff took possession of the site with the Council's consent and started building. She wished to change the use to that of a club, and this involved the need for both planning permission and the Council's permission as her landlord to alter the use of the premises. The Council's dual function helps to explain the large number of meetings referred to in Slade L.J.'s summary. It was, of course, for the Council ultimately to consider the respective recommendations of the Planning Committee and the Estates Committee and to make a decision.

7

On 9 March 1979 the Council and the plaintiff entered into a written agreement for a lease in which the user clause conformed with the existing planning permission. On 13 March the Planning Committee by nine votes to three and on 14 March the Estates Committee by seven votes to five (subject to an increased rent being agreed) approved the change of use to that of a club.

8

On 29 March the Council confirmed by a single vote the resolution of the Planning Committee but by a majority of 22 to 18 rejected the resolution of the Estates Committee. The majority was of a cross-party character, since it included two Independents, two Conservatives and at least four of the Ratepayers' group. On 3 April the plaintiff's solicitors wrote to the Council's Chief Executive asking that her request for change of use consent be reconsidered and on 11 April, despite the Council's decision of 29 March, the Estates Committee by eight votes to six again resolved in favour of a change of use to that of a club.

9

On 26 April the Council by 24 votes to 18 confirmed the Estates Committee resolution of 11 April, thereby reversing its own decision of 29 March, and, as the factual summary of Slade L.J. shows, this was an important Council meeting, to which I shall presently refer.

10

On 6 May 1979 the Local Government elections were held and resulted, so far as Swansea City Council was concerned, in a decisive Labour victory. Mr Jones did not stand for re-election, several of the Ratepayers' group lost their seats and shortly after the election Councillor Tyssul Lewis became the Leader of the Council.

11

In that capacity he attended the Estates Committee meeting on 13 June and, consistently with his attitude at the Council meeting on 26 April, was instrumental in having the City Estate Agent's recommendation for a new rent (consequent on the proposed change of use) disapproved by eleven votes to five.

12

At the Council meeting on 28 June 1979 Councillor Tyssul Lewis proposed and carried a resolution to rescind the Council's resolution of 26 April. All 28 Labour members present, but no others, voted in favour of that resolution which was carried by 28 to 15 and which became the basis for the cause of action against the Council when the plaintiff issued her writ on 27 June 1985, five years and 364 days later.

13

The summary of facts given in the Court of Appeal has described (pp. 65F-67A) the events and the litigation which followed the Council's reversion to its position of 29 March. I need not now refer to this, but the summary also contains a, at pp. 58G-59B, sketch of the political background at pp. 58G-59B to which I call your Lordships' attention:

"Neither the plaintiff nor Mr Jones had been concerned in politics prior to the local government elections in May 1976. Before that date the council had been controlled by the Labour group of councillors for some 40 years.

Shortly before those elections, allegations of corruption in its affairs had been made which involved the leader of the Labour group at that time, Mr Gerald Murphy, and certain officers of the council. He was one of three councillors who represented the Landore ward.

The local government election for the council held in May 1976 followed a bitter election campaign. It resulted in the Labour group being reduced to only eight councillors out of a total of 41. Following that election, a new group of councillors, calling themselves the Ratepayers Party, had an overall majority. Mr Jones was one of the three new Ratepayer councillors who replaced Mr Gerald Murphy and two others as representatives of the Landore ward. He had taken a leading part in the campaign, making available money, office accommodation and secretarial facilities to the Ratepayers Party.

Between 1976 and 1979 the atmosphere in the council was an unhappy one. In 1976 or 1977 Mr Murphy was convicted of corruption in connection with his conduct as a councillor and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. Then, in 1978 or 1979, the leader of the Ratepayers group of councillors, the then leader of the council, was himself convicted of corruption in regard to his behaviour as a councillor and sentenced to a term of imprisonment".

14

I should also mention (see p. 62A) that, when the plaintiff on 30 March learnt of the Council's decision of 29 March, she complained to the local commissioner of the Commission for Local Administration in Wales the same day that "it had become clearly apparent that there was a personal vendetta being carried out against her husband, who was also a local councillor in the Ratepayer group of councillors in Swansea". She referred by name to two Ratepayer councillors and to the wife of an Independent councillor (but not to any Labour councillors) as displaying particularly vindictive attitudes towards Mr Jones and claimed that these councillors would most vigorously oppose her project, aided by the entire Labour group of councillors simply because her husband had an interest in the project. As requested, the commissioner conducted an inquiry into the decision, in the course of which he also considered what had happened at subsequent Council and committee meetings. He reported on 12 February 1981 rejecting the plaintiff's allegations. I mention this because, by consent of the parties, the commissioner's findings were put in evidence at the trial before Roch J., who concluded his judgment by saying:

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