‘You seem to be trying to put the genie back in the bottle’

A High Court judge yesterday refused Croydon Council’s attempt to ‘unpublish’ documents that it had itself put into the public domain.
STEVEN DOWNES, Editor of Inside Croydon, on a small victory for the freedom of the press

Divide and rule: people in the building on the left, Fisher’s Folly, don’t want the people’s representatives in the Town Hall, right, knowing what is going on at the council

Two years ago today, Croydon Council went bust.

Yet in all that time since, Croydon Council has conducted more legal action against this website and me, as Editor, than it has against any of the people who bankrupted the borough.

It was 3.39pm on Wednesday when the email dropped into the inbox here at Inside Croydon Towers from Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense, Croydon Council’s most senior legal official.

It seemed that Lawrence-Orumwense really was going to compound the authority’s incompetence with an act of crass misjudgement – some might use a stronger word – and all at considerable expense to the long-suffering Council Tax-payers of Croydon.

The email said that Croydon Council was taking out a High Court injunction against this website’s Editor to stop us from publishing materials that had been on the council’s own website for six weeks (our italics, because we cannot stress enough the mind-blowing stupidity of the council in taking this step, and all the while using public money to do so).

New readers start here… Towards the end of October, one of Inside Croydon’s loyal readers flagged up two documents that had been published on the council’s own website (our italics, because we cannot stress enough the degree of compounded incompetence demonstrated by the council in this episode).

Compounding the incompetence: Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense, the council’s top lawyer

Both documents had been published as appendices to a report to the council’s appointments committee held on April 27. The documents related to discussions held in “Part B” of that meeting, which in councilspeak is where council staff have determined that what is discussed is too juicy to be shared with the public, and certainly not to be shared with the press.

Appendix One is a 12-page report, dated March 4, 2022, from solicitors Browne Jacobson entitled “Advice to Croydon Council on various issues arising from the second RIPI”, meaning Report In The Public Interest. Grant Thornton, the council’s auditors, had issued their first RIPI in October 2020, foretelling the imminent financial collapse, too late for anyone to do enough to pull the council out of the multi-million-pound tailspin caused by the likes of Jo Negrini, Tony Newman and the misadventure that is the council’s development company, Brick by Brick.

Grant Thornton’s “RIPI2” was published in February this year, the result of 14 months research into the fiasco at the Fairfield Halls, where a £30million refurbishment project failed to be completed, was delivered late and ended up costing £67million. Messrs Negrini, Newman and Brick by Brick were again leading players in this costly sideshow to the shitshow.

RIPI2 had been a game-changer as far as the possibility of legal action being taken by the council was concerned. The council’s new CEO, Katherine Kerswell, had been sitting on the Penn Report (yes, another report) since February 2021, with its recommendations for the borough’s councillors to consider embarking on legal action against Negrini and others. None of which have ever been acted upon.

Browne Jacobson and a senior barrister, Jane Mulcahy QC (as was), had gone over the materials previously in the summer of 2021. Browne Jacobson’s March 2022 report recommended, among other things, that Mulcahy should be asked to go over it all again, but with RIPI2 as additional information.

‘Better than evens’: Jane Mulcahy KC

And that’s where the second document published on the council’s website comes in. Appendix 2 is Mulcahy’s report, 14 pages of it, delivered to the council on April 1. Unlike the Browne Jacobson report, it focuses on the possibility of the council grabbing back some of the £437,000 golden handshake pocketed by Negrini in August 2020.

The reports provide a lot of information on the calamities at the council, and their softly-softly approach towards the people who bankrupted the borough.

Thanks to the diligent reader who spotted them, we downloaded the documents and began preparing to report the most significant details. This involved discussing their contents with various figures, what we euphemistically refer to as “Katharine Street sources” – Town Hall insiders and council staff.

By last Sunday evening, the reports had vanished from the council website. One of our sources, a councillor, had alerted council bosses. “I can’t believe that this is just sitting there,” they’d told Inside Croydon.

See you in court: the Royal Courts of Justice, where the hearing was held

Our first article about the documents appeared on Monday, November 7: ‘Better than evens’ chance of winning Negrini legal case, based on the advice from Mulcahy.

The second article, No referrals sent to staff’s professional bodies, drawn from the Browne Jacobson report, was published on Wednesday, November 9.

We had in the interim received an email from Lawrence-Orumwense, the monitoring officer, ordering us not to publish any of the documents that we had obtained legally from the council’s website. We reported that here: Council threatens injunction over reports it published itself.

The email we received was, in our opinion, a badly drafted and ill-considered piece of correspondence, containing a bald threat to issue a High Court injunction against us for publishing what the council had itself already placed in the public domain.

And then late on Wednesday afternoon, Lawrence-Orumwense’s injunction notice actually landed.

As with so much of what the council does, it was both ham-fisted and incomplete.

“Please find enclosed the Local Authority application for an interim urgent injunction order to be applied for today,” Lawrence-Orumwense wrote.

“The application will be made this afternoon at the High Court of Justice in Court 17, the interim applications Court, and will take place by MS Teams. Please let me know if you wish to attend.”

Well yes, you bet your bloody life I wanted to attend. But where was the link for MS Teams? What time was this hearing supposed to be taking place “this afternoon”, as Lawrence-Orumwense stated?

Unlucky for some: Court 13, scene of the celebrated Wagatha Christie trial, and the less celebrated case of Croydon Council making itself look foolish again

I checked the listings for the High Court. Nothing there. I emailed back to Lawrence-Orumwense, asking for the link and the time of the hearing. There was no response.

The court office closes at 4pm. There was no application hearing held that afternoon, one of several details that Lawrence-Orumwense got wrong. Some time later on Wednesday, someone else in the Croydon legal team sent us another email: it included an attachment with all the council’s evidence (there isn’t much), which Lawrence-Orumwense had forgotten to include with his injunction notification.

Calls were made. Lawyers contacted. What was going on? No one was able to say with any certainty quite how the council’s action was proceeding, if it really was.

I spent Thursday morning ringing round chambers, trying to find a media law barrister who might be available for a very short-notice hearing. Nothing doing. Then more correspondence dropped: there was going to be a hearing. Today! At 2pm!

In the court papers from the council that were served, they were making an “Application for interim injunction”. It had a reference number and everything, KB-2022-004184 LB Croydon v Downes.

“The Articles include extracts from, and report on the contents of, two confidential reports (‘the Reports’). The Council seeks an urgent interim injunction against the Respondent to cease publication of parts of the Articles and to prevent him (at least until trial) from publishing anything further on the content of the First Report (only) in breach of an equitable duty of confidence.”

This was to be heard, but not in Court 17 (as Lawrence-Orumwense had stated in his email the day before), but in Court 13 at the Royal Courts of Justice, the very courtroom where the Wagatha Christie libel trial had taken place recently.

Without legal representation, I had just a couple of hours to prepare a submission to the court. The judge agreed that I could represent myself, and that I could do so remotely.

I’d seen every episode of Judge John Deed. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, I had given evidence in the High Court once before, more than 20 years ago. I appeared as a witness on behalf of the late John McVicar (yes, the “former Public Enemy No1”), after he’d written an article saying that drugs cheat Linford Christie was a drugs cheat. I’d been present when Christie first provided an adverse drugs sample, at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, and written a book, Running Scared, which detailed how the “the world’s fastest granddad” had out-run the drug-testers throughout his track career.

High Court loser: John McVicar was right, but still lost his libel case in 1998

My evidence couldn’t have been that great a help, because eight out of the 11-strong jury agreed that McVicar had libelled Britain’s Olympic hero. Within a year of the libel trial in which he’d sworn on oath that he never used performance-enhancing drugs, Christie tested positive for drugs and was banned from the track…

That may be something of a digression, but it serves to show how delicate and difficult a maze the world of media law can be.

Our case was to be heard by Mr Justice Nicklin, the Judge in Charge of the Media and Communications List. He is the man who wrote the book on the subject, The Law of Privacy and the Media, a tome so much in demand, it even made it into a third edition (which is more than Running Scared ever did).

Other loyal readers had rallied round overnight, passing me notes and suggestions of what to highlight and bring forward in my evidence. Others called with names, numbers and websites of lawyers and funds that might be available for important matters of freedom of speech.

I was told by one individual with more courtroom experience than I to address the judge as “M’lud”, or “Your Lordship”, and that the legal concepts of confidentiality and legal privilege would usually be expected to trump the public interest argument for publication.

The Applicants’ submission – the case being put forward for the council by their barrister – admitted that the documents had been published on the council’s own website on September 23 – six weeks earlier. It was, the council claimed, because of a “technical glitch”.

How the documents got there, in the end, is of little concern. The fact that the council, in a borough of 330,000 people, had placed these docs on the World Wide Web surely made them fair game for journalists to read, download and quote from?

My submission to court concluded: “I submit that the appeal should be dismissed because the Applicants have themselves rendered the documents no longer confidential, and that the documents had lost all privilege by the Applicants’ own act of publishing them on its own website for six weeks.”

Court 13 was a very empty place when I logged in and, with the help of the court clerk, checked that we could all see and hear each other. Normally, if a local authority is making an application to the High Court, you’d expect that the council would be present. As it was, there was only the council’s counsel, a barrister from Cornerstone Chambers, Matthew Lewin, plus two court staff.

Genie out of the bottle: the council placed this KC’s advice document on its own website. Notice how the document makes no mention of being ‘confidential’

Lawrence-Orumwense had emailed in, saying that he could not get from Croydon to the Strand because there was a strike on the Underground. No one made mention of the complete absence of Tube stations in Croydon…

Judge Nicklin allowed the council’s top lawyer to log-in remotely, too.

What do you do when a High Court clerk announces “All stand” and you’re watching proceedings from a table in your living room? I opted to stay in my seat.

Judge Nicklin arrived in the modern(ish) robes of a media judge, without any wig. Once seated, he talked us through the process – this would be a preliminary hearing only, held because of the apparent urgency expressed by the council, but there would be a full hearing later, once Inside Croydon had managed to get all lawyered up…

He invited Lewin to make his opening remarks. My notes, I have to admit, are a little sketchier than if I were simply observing procedures. But Lewin began talking about “non-disclosure”, and “confidential reports”.

And then he said something about “published accidentally as long ago as September”.

Oh.

Judge Nicklin seized on this point. “I rather think that the documents have lost their confidentiality, don’t you?” the judge said, peering across the empty courtroom at Lewin.

The Judge asked Lewin how many times the documents had been accessed or downloaded in the month and a half they had been freely available via the website of Croydon Council. “I haven’t got evidence to demonstrate that today,” Lewin said, sounding a little crest-fallen. He’d not done his homework.

Judge Nicklin, however, had. “It seems to me that you’re trying to put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. I’d barely had to say two words so far.

Judge Nicklin had checked out Inside Croydon. He’d seen that we have nearly 20,000 people signed up to receive alerts when we publish content, and that we have had 16million page views. And he’d even found that we have 15,000 followers on Twitter. Our ad manager, if we had one, would be a big fan of Judge Nicklin.

“It’s a bit of a stretch,” the judge said, addressing Lewin, “that you can keep a secret which has been seen by 16,000 people.”

Lewin was definitely crest-fallen now. I’m sure I heard him say something along the lines of, “The horse has bolted, m’lud.”

Media law expert: The Honourable Mr Justice Nicklin

I was getting a definite sense that Judge Nicklin didn’t think very much of the council’s case, and poor young Mr Lewin was getting a bit of a schooling from the bench as a consequence.

Having heard enough, and after thanking me for my submission to the court, the Judge cut to the quick. He mentioned something about the “Spycatcher principle”, from a notorious case more than 30 years ago where injunctions were used to gag other newspapers, His Lordship ruled that he would not allow any third-party injunction that the council had asked for, he rejected calls for already published articles to be removed from the website, and while he allowed iC to repeat material we have already published, he asked Inside Croydon to give an undertaking not to publish anything else from the documents.

I did not hesitate, and agreed.

We’re not done yet. Judge Nicklin has set aside half a day on November 28 for us to go through the whole thing again, this time with a different judge.

Much of today, meanwhile, was spent going through yet more court papers, eventually getting a High Court order carrying the Judge’s seal, and me getting a copy of the undertaking given in court printed off and signing it, taking it to Fisher’s Folly to place in the hands of the council’s £150,000 per year monitoring officer, Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense.

I waited in “corporate reception”. But Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense, the legal official at the cash-strapped council who had taken the decision to try to injunct on documents that the council had published itself, was not there.

He was working from home.

Best-guess estimates of the costs incurred so far by the council to have its hour in Court 13 yesterday? About £20,000. But hey, it’s only your money…

Read more: ‘Better than evens’ chance of winning Negrini legal case
Read more: #PennReport: No referrals sent to staff’s professional bodies
Read more: #PennReport wanted police probe into possible misconduct
Read more: #PennReport: Cover-ups and denial over Brick by Brick failure


About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Brick by Brick, Croydon Council, Inside Croydon, Jo Negrini, Katherine Kerswell, Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to ‘You seem to be trying to put the genie back in the bottle’

  1. Don White says:

    Well done.

  2. derekthrower says:

    This must represent a new low in Croydon Council’s performance when you think it can’t get any lower.. Attempting an injunction on something it published itself. Does the Council’s top lawyer require legal advice about the law? What a shockingly embarrassing fiasco to connect to the name of Mr Lawrence-Orumwense and the appalling administration of all this seems to sum up the extreme incompetence that it appears only Croydon can deliver. It seems that it would be too much to ask for Mr Lawrence-Orumwense to consider his position at the Council after all this. He must think it is par for the course.

  3. Graham Axford says:

    None of that surprises me.

  4. Derek Nicholls says:

    Another waste of our money!

  5. Congratulations on your victory.

    Shame on Croydon council and Mayor Perry for trying to shut you up instead of tackling the abuses revealed by the Penn report, and for the rush they put you through. I trust you’ll be putting in a FoI request to find out how much they’ve wasted in picking on you. I wouldn’t put it past them to try and blame you for them ending up doing nothing.

    • I hate inside croydon says:

      It’s not a victory – he’s agreed to sign an undertaking not to publish anything else from the documents. I do applaud his ability to pad this out and bury the facts of the story so deep people miss the point. I actually feel sorry for someone who has nothing better going on in his life than to spend hours writing this nonsense.

      • Someone so confident in their views that they have to create an anonymous email account to post it, after they have spent all that time reading through the 2,000-word report. Hahaha… There is no injunction, and there is no third-party injunction, and a Judge has said in open court that the documents have lost their confidentiality because the council had released them – all of which is “buried” in the headline and standfirst.

        • Can we run a book on who “I hate Inside Croydon” might be?

          – a very thirsty councillor 8/1
          – a Soprano we don’t hear much of now 7/1
          – a greedy ex-CEO 5/2
          – a worried current-CEO 7/1
          – a failed planner 9/2
          – his horrible wife 8/3
          – a part-time politician 5/3
          – an MP from over the border 4/1
          – a not very good lawyer 1/3
          – some other pillock 11/1

      • Dave Bryce says:

        What you fail to understand is Inside Croydon is the only reputable news outlet in Croydon. If we didn’t have IC we would have to rely on Facebook or one of those truly awful ‘newspapers’ which you see lying on the floor in the supermarket – they are full of non-news, car adverts and typos. You may like the latter options because it means all the mal-practice, incompetence, closed doors and general local government uselessness you practice at the council will be buried.

        What IC does is dig it up.

        IC is the reason the old Labour administration was sacked, it’s the reason we had a mayoral election and IC holds the current Tory mayor to account – and he knows it.

        The sooner we can expose the useless underperformers in the Council like you, the better. We want you to fuck off, and we want to get some decent, accountable people with vision in the council. IC is our means to do this.

        It beggers belief that we have such a bunch of underperforming fuck-wits at the top of our council. Absolute rot.

  6. David White says:

    I read this with a mixture of a) mirth – parts of the saga are very funny, b) praise for you Steven Downes for taking on the might of a London Borough and defending press freedom, and c) utter frustration that we have such a God-awful Council in Croydon.

  7. Tom Boyle says:

    Staggering incompetence by Croydon Council. How could they ever have expected to convince the judge that a document that had been published on their website could be be in any way regarded as confidential?

  8. Billy James says:

    Well done & congratulations Inside Croydon & the Croydon residents are all with you..

    Carry on your excellent work exposing this crooked SOS at Croydon Council….

  9. Lancaster says:

    Well done IC, keep up the excellent work.

  10. beccax6 says:

    Thank you for your dogged determination and keeping us up to date!

  11. Sarah Bird says:

    Well done.

  12. Michael Lott says:

    If Lawrence-Orumwense couldn’t navigate his way from Charing Cross Station to the Royal Courts of Justice (1.1 miles), what hope has he of finding his way through the complexities of this case. Round 1 definitely to iC. Good luck for the 28th.

    • Ian Kierans says:

      Ha 1.1m! Personally I would go via City Thameslink from Croydon the short stroll is only a meager .4m.

      But come maybe it is not the distance but that it may be beneath a body so in touch with there legal communications side to waste a perfectly good working day from home – no offense M’Lud!

      Perhaps it is fine to piss up £20k of tax pounds but lets not waste the £80ph + benefits salary on something so mundane as showing respect to our courts and turning up? Seriously one commuting to a court hearing one has caused by being crassly incompetent in managing confidential information is not the done thing? After all there might be media people there taking pictures as the judge makes the Genie comment and loud giggles from the public forum.
      That would not be very career enhancing dragging the Council even deeper into the reputational sewer (is that possible?)
      And really ‘Er indoors might take a view that that affect a persons personal performance and could lead to a disciplinary hearing all of its own.

      Unlikely?

      • Sarah Bird says:

        Equally he could have taken the train to Victoria and the number 11 bus from Victoria to Fleet Street, . Alternatively the train to Blackfrairs and then walked up Fleet street to the RCJ or even a taxi. No doubt all will be explained at the full hearing on the 28th November Again, well done to IC .Excellent reporting

        • Nick Davies says:

          Joking aside for a second, surely the council has an account with a local cab firm to cover such eventualities?

  13. Ian Kierans says:

    Definitely well done. Perhaps I as a Council taxpayer and Resident could lodge a formal complaint against the Council for misusing our money. Also for failing to maintain confidentiality of documentation, ahh I could be here all year listing what is done wrong!

  14. Susan Stein says:

    How much CC money has Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense spent pursuing this case?

    Who in the council signed off this action?

    Who is Stephen Lawrence-Orumwense? Who sat on his interview? Is he a permanant employee of CC? If so, who signed off his probationary period?

    Why is Katherine Kerswell still in her job?

    Why can’t the new Mayor sort this shambles out, starting with Kerswell?

    • Can’t that all be FOId?

      • Theoretically, yes. But dysfunctional Croydon Council breaks the law by delaying responses to many FoIs and when it does provide answers, they often find excuses for withholding the requested information.
        Formal questions from elected councillors, as well as legitimate press enquiries, are routinely being delayed by being diverted into the FoI system

  15. Frances Taylor says:

    I wish I hadn’t read this. I have no words.

  16. Colin Cooper says:

    Pleased to hear you were able to defend your case successfully but appalled as yet more of OUR money has been misused to hide the failures of Negrini and Co.

  17. Grizwald says:

    It seems without a doubt that you are the only person standing up for Croydon taxpayers.

  18. David Floyd says:

    Keep fighting and posting

  19. Christian Evans says:

    Top work by a top journalist. Well done Steve.

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