Tuesday 18 December 2012

The People's Library: a day in court

Barnet County Court usually deals with family cases, small claims cases: routine, personal issues, attended by the plaintiffs and their legal advisers, dealt with quietly, discreetly: no one else's business, unremarked, and unreported.

Today was different. Today was when the very interesting matter of the occupation of Friern Barnet Library - the People's Library - was brought before the judge, to decide whether or not Barnet Council should be granted leave to repossess the building and evict the occupiers and community activists who have installed themselves in the library, reclaiming it for the people of Friern Barnet.

The people of Friern Barnet came to the court in large numbers today to show their support for the occupiers, crowding out the courtroom, and politely taking their turns in sitting in limited space available throughout the hearing. Politeness, and a very British attitude is the prevailing quality of the occupation, in fact, confounding almost everyone's prejudices about squatters, the occupy movement, and direct action initiatives. Here in this most British of environments, a courtroom, where justice is blind, and allocated on the basis of merit, not privilege, or force, there was perhaps the right home for much of what drives the continuing story of this small scale revolution in a library, in the heart of Tory Barnet. 

The motives of the residents and activists pursuing this course of action are, in Mrs Angry's eyes anyway absolutely just, and seeking only what is fair. It is the corrupt, illegitimate authority of Barnet Council which is on trial, and called to answer for its immorality and betrayal of the best interests of the people it was elected to represent.

Judge Patricia Pearl spent most of the morning deciding on the proper way to conduct the case, and the outlines of the different arguments to be brought by the council and the defendants who are in occupation of the library. Some of the discussions were rather prolonged, and nitpicking, and the judge herself wondered if members of the public would think they were debating 'the number of angels that could be safely accommodated on the head of a pin'.  Eventually proceedings got under way, with four individuals listed as the representatives of the occupiers: Peter Phoenix, Daniel Gardner, Petra Halbert and Keith Martin.

For Barnet the barrister was a Mr Nicholas Grundy, and for the occupiers, Miss Sarah Sackman.

First to take the stand was an officer from property services, Susannah Lewis, who was questioned about such matters as whether or not sleeping in a library, as the occupiers do, constituted a form of residency, and therefore some sort of breach of planning regulations. It appeared that might be the case. She did admit, however, that there had been no impediment to inspection of the premises by the council's representatives by the occupiers.

Bill Murphy, a consultant working as Barnet's Assistant Director of Customer Services, and therefore ultimately responsible for libraries, was sworn in next. Incidentally, there were no Tory councillors present: scared off, no doubt, after last time, when a solitary member,, deputy leader  Councillor Dan Thomas had the uncomfortable experience of being surrounded by the dozens of library supporters.

Mr Murphy said that the council had wanted to enter discussions with the occupiers and campaigners 'in good faith'. Rather puzzlingly he claimed that the council had appointed a named officer to deal with residents and campaigners over the library issue. No one in the courtroom had heard of this individual. 

Some discussion ensued as to whether or not the occupiers had been informed that they were 'trespassers'. He thought that this was 'implied'. 

Mr Grundy suggested that the occupation was an obstruction in the marketing of the library to community bidders, now that the building had been listed, under the new terms of the localism act, as a communtity asset. That was correct, said Mr Murphy.

Mrs Angry tried to understand the point being made here: that the fact that residents had taken steps to get their library building listed in this way was preventing residents from acquiring it for community use?

Mention now was made of the meeting in the occupied library on September 10th, a meeting attended by an assortment of officers, occupiers, residents, campaigners - and bloggers, including Mrs Angry.

Minutes from this meeting had been supplied, and rather bizarrely Mr Grundy, on behalf of the authority, quoted the words of John Dix, blogger Mr Reasonable, saying that the officers present were not authorised to make decisions and asking where were the councillors ... this was represented by Mr Grundy as in some way reinforcing the argument that the meeting was not to be taken as any sort of formal negotation, or recognition of any license to occupy the premises.

It was established now that freelance journalist, Diane Taylor, also present at the 'circle of friends' meeting had asked 'will you enter into a caretaker arrangement'. The answer had been 'we will not enter into any snap decisions'. 

This, you might think clearly suggested that a caretaker arrangement was therefore not ruled out as a possibility, and arguably gave legitimacy to the occupation, allied with the absence of any mention of the term 'trespass'. 

Mr Murphy thought the confusion arose from the difficulty of the council's position, being 'between a rock and a hard place', and not wishing to 'make the situation worse'. He also commented that they were not dealing with 'amateur squatters' - the implication being they knew the position without it being spelt out.

After lunch, it was time for campaigner Fiona Brickwood to take the stand. Ms Brickwood is a psychotherapist by profession, and a resident of Friern Barnet for sixteen years. Her testimony was measured, convincing and yet forthright. She said she was very upset by the closure of the library, the heart, she said, of Friern Barnet. She had her own campaign group, the Friern Barnet Co-action group, but also helped with the Save Friern  Library Group, being involved in protests, attending council meetings, the pop up libraries, all in order to support the community, which had rallied around, brought books, and turned it into a thriving concern. Not just donating books: computers, time, everyone coming together. People got to meet neighbours, and support each other.

Fiona listed some of the many varied activities in the occupied library: children's activities (supervised by CRB checked volunteers) social events, music, yoga, pilates, language lessons. She explained how she felt it was right to protest very strongly about the library being closed, and explained that when asked about the proposal, people had said very strongly 'no, we don't want this'. 

The council's barrister made the mistake of mentioning the failure by campaigners to apply for a Judicial Review. Fiona Brickwood pointed out that in fact this was entirely due to the campaigners being misled by officers as to the process of negotiation in which they thought they were involved, which, prolonged as it was, conveniently(for the council) took them beyond what they later discovered was the the three month limit for application for JR. She described this behaviour by the council as 'reprehensible'. Bill Murphy shook his head.

Asked how she felt about the occupation, Fiona said that the campaigners were 'enormously grateful' to them.  As to the issue about whether trespass was mentioned, she felt that the council was 'talking through their actions', in other words effectively giving a form of legitimacy to the occupation by their negotiations.

Mr Grundy now tried to put the case that the occupation somehow disadvantaged any other groups who wished to bid to take over the library building now it was listed as a community asset. Fiona refuted this, pointing out the library had been empty for a long time, and as to any potential bids - bring'em on ...

Next up was Phoenix, the spokesperson of the library occupiers. He described himself as a community organiser of some 20 years experience - since the Rio summit of 1992. He described coming to Friern Barnet and being struck by the lack of transparency and lack of communication by the council in its dealings with residents over the library. 

He wanted to enable a better dialogue, and bring the council and local community together. In his statement he had described the various activities that have taken place in the occupied library, and added a few more recent examples - the visit and reading from Will Self, an event on climate debate with the new Green Party leader, a talk by a senior Unison officer on 'transition towns'. 

Holding these events, he said, demonstrated that it is a vibrant centre for the community. It strengthened the protest, raised massive awareness in the media - and as he later explained he wanted to draw attention to the wider issue of library closures. He saw himself as a facilitator for the local community, who could create a solution.

Mr Grundy wanted to know if he was a 'professional occupier'. Phoenix thought a better term would be an 'experienced occupier'.

Mr Grundy wanted to know if he thought he was good at it. Phoenix thought he was good at 'community projects'. 

Mr Grundy asked him about the new listing as a community asset, implying that this meant the building would now be retained for community use. No, said Phoenix, who is no fool: this means only that retaining it is just one option.

Mr Grundy gave up.

Finally came the turn of resident Keith Martin. Keith described himself as a retired chartered accountant, and a resident of Friern Barnet for forty two years. He was involved, he said, to refute the idea that the occupiers were 'fly by nights'. It was important to protest about the library closure because Friern Barnet was not a very well off community, the local children could not easily get to another library in North Finchley, not cross the North Circular to the South Friern branch.

Keith mentioned his six hour occupation of the library on the last day of opening, and the consequent pop up libraries. The judge asked how long these continued - all through the August rain? Yes. After describing the occupation as a well run , happy place, Judge Pearl was offered a cup of tea at the library, by Phoenix,  which she declined, albeit with a fair degree of amusement.

After a short break, the hearing resumed on a rather broader level of debate: the question, as raised by the occupiers barrister, of the human rights aspect of the case. And this is where the hearing stopped being about the closure of one library, and about something more intangible, and indefinable.

Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act refer to the freedom of expression, and to the right to peaceful assembly and association with others. Were these rights engaged in the context of the occupied library, and would they be infringed by eviction?

With such rights, said the judge - once they're there, they're there ... 

A fascinating discussion then ensued between the two counsels and the judge on previous cases involving occupation, protest, and rights in law. The Occupy movement at St Paul's, the Peace Camp/Democratic Village on Parliament Square Gardens, and even the women's camp at Aldermaston: all these notable precedents raised and compared to the occupation of a small branch library in leafy Friern Barnet. 

Would the removal of the protest represent 'an interference' with the rights expressed in law? Is a possession order an interference?

Is it not just a case of whether rights would be infringed, not just in terms of the right to expression and association, but the rights endowed in the manner of the protest itself.

Miss Sackman was now elaborating eloquently on her theme: she maintained that 'the manner and form is the protest itself ' in other words, the medium, in this context, is the message, and should be respected as the act of expression which the Article is meant to protect. An occupation to protest about the occupation of a library should be allowed to be expressed in situ, just as the Aldermaston occupation was allowed to take place in a specific location. 

Since the early days of the campaign to save Friern Barnet library it has been apparent that this particular story is more than the tale of one library, or even One Barnet. It has a resonance, a significance beyond the immediate relevance of the closure of a much loved community resource. It is symbolic of something else, something harder to identify, or define. It speaks to some sort of archtypal emotion, a subconscious longing to retain something slipping just out of reach, something precious, and irreplaceable. We don't know what it is, yet, but we will do, once it has gone.

Don't take our library away: don't shut our museums. Don't sell our local services to Capita and tell us it's all for our own good: this is our community, and we want to live there in our own way, without you telling us how, or why, or what we can say, and when. 

Freedom of speech, freedom of association: democratic liberties we take for granted, until they are taken away - here in Broken Barnet, we are fighting to take control of our local democracy, and our rights in law, and whatever happens tomorrow, we will continue the fight.

1 comment:

Mr Mustard said...

What an excellenet report Mrs A, it is as if I was within the room. I couldn't get out of my office yesterday and I would only have added to the very civilised rota of observers so I will stay out of the way again today. I am easily able to keep up on Twitter.

I am pleased to see that we have moved on from using lesser known legal representatives to some serious briefs:

Private Eye will be pleased that the occupiers are retaining Ms Sackman who is acting for the West Kensington & Gibbs Green Tenants Sssociation against Hammersmith & Fulham Council which has featured in their esteemed organ a few times.

Best of luck for today.