April 13, 2016
March saw the successful end of a three-year Freedom of Information campaign by Bolton News.
In late 2012, Dale Haslem of Bolton News submitted a Freedom of Information request to ask if any councillors had failed to pay their council tax on time. The answer revealed that two unnamed councillors missed payments and had only settled up after they were repeatedly threatened with court action – but the council would not reveal their names. One of them subsequently revealed himself, but it was only after we took the case to the Upper Tier Tribunal that the council was ordered to identify the defaulting councillor.
I came across the story through an internet search and offered to get involved. As I recently explained to The Law Society Gazette and Bolton News, through most of my career I have represented newspapers and media outlets defending claims against them such as libel. I passionately believe in free speech and transparency. I’m also a council tax payer and it made me cross to see public servants using public money to protect themselves from scrutiny. A councillor who does not pay council tax is excluded from voting on budgets. I believe the people he represents have a right to know. With costs being cut to the bone, laws that still favour claimants and freedom of speech under attack as never before, I knew that a regional paper would not have the budget to pursue this any further – but we could, on their behalf. The Judge agreed that disclosure was clearly a matter of public interest, and we have set a precedent that I hope other journalists will be able to rely on in future.