Report by Hickling Parish Council on its dispute with HPFRG Charity Trustees 2011-2015
The dispute between Hickling Parish Council and the HPFRG Charity is settled. It is now confined to the history of our village. Hickling Parish Council wishes it to remain that way.
Hickling Parish Council has been asked by parishioners to compile a report on the dispute for the village. The questions we have been asked to report on are the motives, intentions and actions of the Parish Council in its dispute with HPFRG Charity Trustees. We have also received specific questions around aspects of the dispute.
As you can probably appreciate, the dispute generated an enormous amount of paperwork. The Parish Council has numerous files that contain thousands of documents. They are files held by the previous administration and those handed over by Ward Gethin Archer (solicitors for the Parish Council). We imagine that the Charity has a similar amount. We have been offered access to the Charity’s paperwork with regards to the dispute, but have confined ourselves to an examination of the Council’s own paperwork.
Most of the documents we have relate to the evidence that was due to be produced in court. There is a small proportion that concerns the correspondence of Hickling Parish Council and the organisations it sought and received advice from. Within this correspondence there are numerous references to telephone conversations. We do not have any transcripts of these and have therefore not been able to have access to a complete record of the dispute.
It appears that the vast majority of correspondence was carried out between Ward Gethin Archer and the previous Chair using the Chair’s home address and email and did not go via the Parish Clerk. This does not follow standard practice for Parish Council correspondence. The meeting minutes do not record correspondence received and sent, and there is no requirement for working parties to minute their meetings. It has therefore been impossible to find out if all of the information was given to all councillors. It has also been impossible to find out if members of the Legal Working Party itself discussed the contents of all the correspondence.
We did consider approaching the Barrister requesting a full written report of his/her meeting with the previous administration that led to the settlement on May 1st 2015. It was decided not to do this, as it would have resulted in further unnecessary cost to the village. We also considered the possibility that the previous administration had acted inappropriately during the dispute. We did not find any relevant evidence to support a case as prescribed by the Crown Prosecution Service.
We have approached Ward Gethin Archer for a copy of the instructions initially given to them by the Parish Council. It appears that the instructions were given by telephone only.
We are releasing the documents contained in this report as we consider them to be of key relevance to the questions we have been asked. We are not disclosing them to make any form of judgement but to present the facts to the village as requested. They are attached to this report in chronological order.
Specific Parishioner Questions
WGA = Ward Gethin Archer, NALC = National Association of Local Councils.
On Friday 1 May 2015 members of the previous parish council went to London to obtain legal advice. They returned to Hickling the same day and promptly agreed to accept an offer of settlement, which the charity had made in December 2014, five months earlier.
What advice were these councillors given that resulted in their agreement to settle?
And did the advice differ from previous advice?
We are releasing the attendance note of Richard Pennington (WGA) from the 1st May 2015 meeting. We believe this document answers both questions. This is the only document we hold that directly concerns the discussions of this meeting.
The previous parish council claimed that they were advised not to pay over to the HPFRG Charity the final instalment of the Public Works Loan. What question/instruction did the previous parish council pose to elicit such advice and who gave this advice?
As previously stated the initial instructions to WGA were carried out by telephone so we are unable to answer this question in full. We are releasing the letter received from WGA (3rd February 2012) that advises the council not to pay any monies following this telephone conversation. We are also releasing the legal advice received from NALC (18TH August 2011) and Hancox solicitors (29th November 2011) that the previous administration obtained prior to appointing WGA.
In April/May 2013 the previous parish council went to court to seek disclosure of financial documents from the charity. In June 2013 the court ordered that the documents demanded by the council were not relevant to their case or disclosable and awarded costs to the charity.
- Was this application to the court by the parish council in accordance with legal advice?
- What was the cost to the village of this application and the award of costs?
- We are releasing an email from WGA (25th January 2013) that is relevant to this question.
- We are unable to answer this question, as the invoices from WGA are not specific enough to extrapolate this information. The award of costs was £2369.64.
How much parish money exactly has the previous parish council’s pursuit of their dispute with the HPFRG Charity cost the village?
The total legal fees paid by Hickling Parish Council between years ending March 31st 2012 and 2016 were £53,775 including VAT. An estimate of the extra costs of external audit caused by objections to the legal spend is £7,500. VAT is of course reclaimable and has already been reclaimed on some of this spending. This does not include any money spent by HPFRG.
Other Documents Released
Email from WGA to the Chair recommending this is a case that ought to settle. This email was sent on 22nd August 2013 after a meeting between both sides’ solicitors.
Parish Council delegated authority with regards to the formal mediation, which took place 10th May 2013.