Surrey library volunteer decision ruled unlawful by High Court

Surrey County Council's decision to run 10 libraries by volunteers in a move to keep its 52 libraries open has been ruled unlawful by the High Court.

Campaigners opposed the move on the technicality that paid staff were more knowledgeable in being able to provide assistance to vulnerable users.

Mr Justice Wilkie said the decision-making process was flawed as training for volunteers was not fully discussed.

The council said his ruling did not suggest its scheme could not go ahead.

The judge is due to make a further ruling on the issue in May.

Council 'pleased'

The verdicts could have implications for other councils around the UK who have earmarked changes to library services as a means of cutting spending following a 27% cut in central government funding over four years.

Surrey County Council said it was pleased Mr Justice Wilkie had not criticised its libraries plans.

Protesters had asked him to overturn the council's decision to create community-partnered libraries but his judgement had not done that, the authority said in a statement.

"The judgement simply said the cabinet should have had more information in front of it about the work the council had already done to develop equalities training for volunteers, when it made its decision in September," the council added.

Legal proceedings were issued by a group of Surrey residents who formed the Surrey Libraries Action Movement (Slam).

The decision was challenged on the basis the council had failed to discharge its public sector equality duties under the Equality Act 2010.

'Terrible impact'

Lawyers for the group said the Act required the council "to give rigorous regard to how removing paid staff would affect the accessibility of libraries to protected groups, including children, elderly and disabled persons".

The main claimants who brought the legal challenge were Nicholas Dorrington and Lucy Williams.

Mr Dorrington said: "It is a great disappointment that the council has wasted thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money trying to ignore and ride roughshod over public criticism and outrage, defending the indefensible."

Ms Williams added: "Libraries are such an important part of local communities and for Surrey County Council to remove funding for library staff would have had a terrible impact on the local area."

Slam spokesman Lee Godfrey said the county council plans "lacked scrutiny" throughout the decision-making process.

'Thriving libraries'

Liberal Democrats on Surrey County Council welcomed the High Court judgment saying they had repeatedly raised concerns about the equalities impact of the library plans.

Communities spokesman John Orrick said: "It [the cabinet] can't just bolt on equalities training now to its plans, because its decision making was flawed, it would have to go back and reconsider its decisions."

He called on the Conservative administration to cut its losses and abandon the plans, adding the financial costs were "rocketing".

But Helyn Clack, Surrey County Council's cabinet member for community services, said: "Today's decision is no reflection on our plans for communities to run local libraries with support from the county council.

"Our aim all along has been to keep all Surrey's libraries open and help them thrive, while elsewhere in the country branches are closing. We've listened to disability groups to develop training programmes for volunteers from the start and the judge recognised this."

The libraries identified as possible community facilities are Bagshot, Bramley, Byfleet, Ewell Court, Lingfield, New Haw, Stoneleigh, Tattenhams, Virginia Water and Warlingham.

Under the plans, communities would take over their day-to-day running.

The council would continue to provide everything else, including the building, the stock, computer equipment and the installation of free wi-fi in all its libraries.

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