Travellers' victory puts evictions in doubt

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The Independent Online

A High Court ruling granting the right of New Age travellers to "common humanity" was being studied anxiously by local authorities yesterday, amid fears it will make evictions almost impossible to carry out.

Mr Justice Sedley ruled that Wealden district council, East Sussex, and Lincolnshire county council were legally in the wrong for failing to make proper welfare inquiries about travellers in their areas before deciding to remove them.

The judgment was welcomed by travellers' groups, who had mounted the challenge to the Government's new anti-trespass laws. But one of the council's affected said yesterday the decision made the Criminal Justice Act unusable for removing unauthorised encampments.

The judgment made two main points. First, any eviction order applies only to named individuals and not to anyone arriving afterwards. Second, the travellers' welfare must be considered before an eviction.

The ruling, at the High Court in London on Thursday, in effect rendered the criminal legislation less useful than the previous civil laws enacted through the county court.

Gavin Wilson, senior planning officer with the Association of District Councils, said it would have to study the ruling, but it would appear to demand "quite a lot of resources".

It stemmed from an "apparent contradiction" between the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which failed to include welfare considerations for travellers, and Department of Environment guidance issued last November, which did.

Mr Wilson said: "I don't think any local authority wants to argue they shouldn't be taking account of welfare needs, but when you have an illegal encampment, local authorities come under extremely strong pressure from local communities to effect their removal as quickly as possible."

The ruling seemed to say welfare should be considered before any decision on whether eviction was appropriate.

In Lincolnshire, a working party will examine the implications of the High Court ruling. But Steve Jackson, the county council's spokesman, said it would cause difficulties almost immediately.

Although Mr Justice Sedley said the council was legally wrong, he refused to quash an eviction order on about 80 travellers from land in the parishes of Temple Bruer and Wellbourne near Grantham. Removal will now take place on Monday.

Steve Staines, of the Friends, Families and Travellers Support Group, said Mr Justice Sedley had "changed the agenda". Councils, some of whom had been working in heavy-handed "collusion" with police since the Criminal Justice Bill became law, would have to reconsider their policies, Mr Staines claimed.

The risk was that the Government would issue revised guidance to councils to cut welfare obligations, but they would continue to fight for better treatment for gypsies and travellers.

Steve Cragg, of the Public Law Project legal group which represented the 46 Wealden travellers, said: "This is important because the judge is clearly saying that a council ... has got to think about people rather than just assuming they can evict them."