Fringe Box



Will Legal Opinion on Ash’s Absent Councillors Be Received in Time to Hold By-elections?

Published on: 29 Jun, 2022
Updated on: 1 Jul, 2022

By Martin Giles

Ash Parish Council (APC) is unlikely to receive a legal opinion on the status of the two absent councillors Tony and Helen Gorham until the autumn, around 12 months since their physical absence from council meetings was raised as an issue. The two councillors moved away from Ash to Wiltshire in 2020.

In May, APC decided to seek a legal opinion on the controversial verbal advice, said to have been given to the APC’s chairman Nigel Manning by an unidentified person at the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), that despite a clear High Court judgement it would be acceptable, under the 1972 Local Government Act, for councillors, to attend council meetings online.

All 22 of the parish councils in Guildford borough that have responded to The Dragon’s enquiry (only Ockham Parish Council has not ) say they are complying with the “six-month rule”, ie that if a councillor does not physically attend a council meeting for six months they are automatically disqualified and may be replaced.

In April, the monitoring officer at GBC gave the opinion that the “six-month rule” had been broken by the Gorhams and the two councillors could be deemed disqualified. But the monitoring officer has no jurisdiction. His role is not to police parish councils although he does oversee the handling of any complaints made against them.

See also: Parish Council to Seek Further Legal Advice on Absentee Councillors

Despite APC’s May decision to seek legal advice, the only progress made in the month up until the June 13 meeting was the preparation of a draft instruction brief to legal counsel. There is concern that the process is being dragged out. If a conclusion is not reached by November there would not be time to arrange a by-election to replace the two councillors. The parish council is not due to meet in August.

At their most recent meeting, APC members agreed to combine the instruction brief provided by the parish clerk with amended versions by Cllrs Carla Morson, Pat Scott and Jo Randall. The clerk was tasked to produce the final version for all councillors to approve within 24 hours.

Draft APC minutes for the June meeting include questions from residents Including Lib Dem county and borough councillor Fiona White and Carl Cookson the resident who raised the issue once again in March. The APC minutes show the questions and answers without attribution, as follows:

Why did Cllr Nigel Manning think the opinion from the [GBC] monitoring office was just a personal opinion?

The [acting] chairman  [Cllr John Tonks] confirmed that he couldn’t answer that question on behalf of [the chairman] Cllr Nigel Manning. Cllr Jo Randall confirmed that the monitoring officer can only give an opinion to APC [as] it is an entity in its own right and not a principal authority.

Can Cllr Nigel Manning respond to this question upon his return?

The [acting] chairman confirmed he would ask Cllr Nigel Manning to respond.

Cllr Manning referred to a verbal telephone call he had with NALC in April. Can APC not
now email NALC for an opinion and their response be made public?

The [acting] chairman confirmed that yes APC could ask for a formal opinion and if they did this then the response would be made public by way of correspondence in a meeting.

How can residents be kept up to date with what is happening on this matter?

The [acting] chairman confirmed that residents are kept up to date by having items on meeting agendas and the minutes of the meetings which are all published for everyone to see.

Can the wording of the brief to the barristers be made public?

The [acting] chairman confirmed that the residents present would hear the outcome during the meeting and that once the quotes had been received there would be another item on an agenda at a future meeting.

[I am] concerned about the time frame for this process as if it gets to November then the public will not have the opportunity to have an election to replace the councillors. Can a deadline be set for responses to be received from barristers?

The [acting] chairman confirmed that the council are [sic] looking to conclude this matter without delay. The wording of the brief will be agreed tonight and yes, a deadline can be set for the responses to be received from barristers.

[Comment] Just for the record, I’m amused and disgusted that the council are proceeding with the
process of obtaining quotes from barristers. History has shown that if a councillor doesn’t attend at least one public meeting within a six-month period they were disqualified.

See also: The Dragon Says: Time for Ash Parish Council Chairman to Admit His Error

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