Library cuts challenge blocked

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The Independent Online

Campaigners against library cuts have had their High Court challenge blocked.

A judge ruled they had delayed too long in seeking judicial review of Isle of Wight proposals to stop funding five libraries on the island.

Judge Pearl, sitting in London, said that, in any event, he would not have allowed the challenge to go ahead as the island campaigners did not have "an arguable case".

The decision was a defeat for Serena Brunke, a grandmother living in the village of Brighstone, who led the challenge.

The Isle of Wight legal challenge is one of several launched around the country to save libraries as local authorities come under pressure to reduce services in the face of significant funding cuts by central government.

It is the first to be rejected by the High Court.

A ruling is still awaited on library closures in Brent, north London. Other challenges are pending later this year involving Gloucestershire and Somerset county councils.

At today's hearing, Ms Brunke attacked Isle of Wight Council's decision on February 23 to set a budget that took into account savings on library services.

Ms Brunke also attacked a more detailed decision of the council's cabinet on March 1 approving the closure of five libraries, or their transfer to be run by local community groups.

The five due to lose council funding include Brighstone library, which is regularly used by Mrs Brunke, her married daughter Heidi and 13-year-old granddaughter Alisha.

Kate Markus, appearing for Ms Brunke, applied for permission to seek judicial review, saying the libraries were "a highly prized community asset".

She argued that, even if the libraries were transferred to community groups, their future remained uncertain and they were in danger of failing through lack of funding or suitable volunteers to make them a success.

Ms Markus said the council budget-setting process was flawed and unlawfully limited the council's options when it came to the provision of library services.

She argued there had been a lack of consultation, and a failure by the council to take proper account of the disproportionate impact of the closures on women and the disabled, as it was required to do by equality legislation.

Rejecting the application, Judge Pearl said there had been too long a delay in launching the case.

Ms Markus said Ms Brunke could not be blamed for the delay, adding it was due to the Legal Services Commission taking too long to rule on whether she should be granted legal aid to fight her case.

The judge said he had sympathy for the difficulties Ms Brunke faced, but her "excuse was not good enough".

He said the case was at the "outer reaches" of the period to issue proceedings, and it would be "detrimental to good administration" to give her permission to take her case to a full hearing.

The judge indicated he would not have given permission in any event.

He said of Ms Markus: "None of the matters she drew to my attention are in my view arguable."

The council had approached the decision-making process on library services with an "open mind" and could not be said to have acted unlawfully, he added.

Later Mrs Brunke said: "We hold the Legal Services Commission responsible for what has happened today. They constantly delayed issuing legal aid, first withdrawing it and then reinstating it."