Court limits council power over footpath

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The Independent Online
A FARMER accused of blocking a footpath by planting wheat across it has been acquitted after a court held that council officials lacked the power to mount a prosecution.

Senior officials at East Sussex County Council were yesterday reviewing standing orders after the unexpected reversal. The case, which came before Hailsham magistrates on Tuesday, could have implications for council-led prosecutions elsewhere.

The farmer, John Cyster, of Northiam, East Sussex, was taken to court for allegedly allowing the crop to grow over the path on his land at Beckley. The case was brought by the county secretary and county engineer, in line with accepted practice.

But Michael Foster, for the defence, said that under standing orders, chief officials did not have the power to take legal action without the authority of councillors.

The magistrate, David Phillips, said he was satisfied councillors should have been consulted. 'East Sussex County Council did not have the authority to prosecute in this case. These proceedings are null and void,' he said. Mr Cyster was awarded costs of pounds 1,500 from central funds.

The council argued that chief officials were answerable to its committees and empowered to institute proceedings under delegated powers set out in standing orders.

Yesterday, Andrew Ogden, East Sussex deputy county secretary, said that if the court's ruling was taken literally, local government would grind to a halt. Every decision, no matter how routine or trivial, would have to be approved by a committee of councillors.

Mr Ogden said the ruling also seemed to call for such legal action to be conducted by individual chief officials in person, rather than by more junior officials in their departments.

Although the council's standing orders give delegated powers in many areas to chief officials, they do not specify that the officials themselves are expected to spread the workload within their departments.

'Every county councillor knows that when they delegate powers, the action could actually be taken by any one of many officers. The court was saying the county secretary and county engineer should have handled the prosecution themselves,' Mr Ogden said.

The council is considering an appeal against the court's decision. However, it is more likely to rewrite its standing orders, to ensure that they cannot be challenged again. Other authorities are being advised to take similar action.

Meanwhile, the wheat has been harvested and the footpath is open. The council has warned that if Mr Cyster blocks the footpath in future he will face prosecution.