Travellers 'in breach' of the law

If the High Court allowed residents of the UK's largest illegal travellers' site to escape eviction it would "send out the wrong signal" to the nation, a judge was told today.

A victory for the travellers of Dale Farm, near Basildon, Essex, "would strike to the very principles of the rule of law", said a barrister representing Basildon Council.

The council has been battling for a decade to remove the travellers, who now number some 400 individuals on more than 50 pitches, from the green belt site.

The costly tangle of litigation already generated has been condemned by critics as a "farce".

Today the residents launched a fresh, three-pronged attack on moves to evict them.

They came to the High Court in London today with a battery of legal arguments contained in three separate applications for judicial review to stop the clearance of Dale Farm.

But Reuben Taylor, appearing for the council, said the authority had done all it could to comply with planning and human rights laws and its decision to take direct action was not unlawful, unreasonable or disproportionate.

He told Mr Justice Ouseley: "At its heart these proceedings seek an order from the court that would enable the residents to stay at Dale Farm in breach of the criminal law."

The court was in effect being asked to sanction criminal conduct by granting planning permission for the residents.

He said: "It is not the court's role to sanction criminal conduct - rather it is the court's role to uphold the law.

"There are many in housing need in this country - many who cannot afford their own home, but who would like one.

"If the court were to grant the relief sought it would send a signal to all in this country that they can move on to the green fields of this land and build their home in the knowledge that whatever steps the local planning authority may take, the courts will prevent enforcement.

"The court should be slow indeed to take a decision with such consequences, and slow indeed before it allows a claim that strikes to the very principles of the rule of law."

The Court of Appeal ruled against Dale Farm travellers in 2009 after they sought a judicial review claiming their human rights had been breached.

The clearance of the site was finally due to begin last week after legal proceedings were apparently exhausted.

But a new High Court injunction prevented bailiffs moving in while the courts grappled with today's fresh legal arguments.

They involve human rights and planning law and claims that the sick and elderly and children on the site will unfairly suffer if the evictions go ahead.

According to a YouGov poll, two-thirds of the British public support the council's actions.

Mr Taylor said the council had already spent considerable public resources in the preparations needed to remove the residents from the six-acre site.

Council officials estimated the cost to the public purse at £400,000, but that did not include police costs and further costs of the council's contractors.

He said: "The delay in bringing the claim is obviously highly prejudicial to good administration."

The total cost to the taxpayer of the site clearance has been estimated at around £18 million.

The first judicial review application was brought today by Irish traveller Mary Sheridan.

Her counsel, Marc Willers, said the case had an "extensive history" but Ms Sheridan was not claiming she should be allowed to stay at Dale Farm "forever - or indeed for many years, or even a year".

Mr Willers said: "This claim is brought on this basis: there is no alternative, suitable accommodation at this point in time, and it would be disproportionate to be forced to leave in the absence of such accommodation."

Outside court, council leader Tony Ball said the wheels of justice were "grinding slowly" but "going forward" and he expected the site to be cleared.

He said: "We will be back in court tomorrow afternoon and again on Monday and the judge has indicated there will be a judgment by Tuesday at the earliest.

"As I have said before, it has taken 10 years so far, and we now know the vast majority of British people support us, and we can wait a few more days for justice to be done."