Judgments - Magill v. Porter Magill v. Weeks

(back to preceding text)

    31. Both Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks, in their respective printed cases, accept that they knew that the council could not use its powers for electoral advantage. They plainly did know that. It follows, subject to the points discussed below, that in adopting and implementing the designated sales policy both acted in a way they knew to be unlawful.

    32. Fourthly, it was found that the designated sales policy promoted and implemented by Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks caused financial loss to the council. The auditor's conclusion (p 499, para 1361) was as follows:

    "The fact that Councillor Lady Porter was not present at the meeting of the Housing Committee on 8 July 1987 or at the meetings of the Appointed Members' Panels on 4 September 1987, and did not, at those meetings, vote for the extended designated sales policy, which she had sought to procure, does not mean that she was not responsible for the consequences of those decisions. Without Councillor Lady Porter's promotion and support there would have been no proposal put to the Housing Committee for an increased programme of designated sales, targeted in the key/marginal wards and on the scale proposed. I find as a fact that she was one of those responsible for the decisions taken and the consequences which ensued. The resulting financial consequences were caused, in my view, by her misconduct".

An identical finding was made in relation to Mr Weeks: p 583, para 1595. The Divisional Court found (at p 204) that such loss as resulted to the council from the decisions taken by the Housing Committee and the council in July 1987 was caused by the wilful misconduct of Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks. In the Court of Appeal Robert Walker LJ at page 1496 accepted that conclusion. But Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks have raised an issue on causation which it is necessary to consider in more detail below.

    33. In argument before the House, counsel for Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks raised a large number of points in resistance to the auditor's appeal. The three most substantial of these arguments are considered in the sections which follow.

Reliance on legal advice.

    34. On behalf of Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks it was argued before the House that whatever the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the designated sales policy they acted, in promoting it after 5 May 1987, in accordance with what they believed to be legal advice given to the council and were accordingly not guilty of wilful misconduct.

    35. The auditor's findings on this matter in relation to Dame Shirley Porter were set out in paras 1362 and 1366 of his decision at pp 499-500:

    "I find as a fact that Councillor Lady Porter did not act reasonably or in the belief that any expenditure resulting from the decisions of the Housing Committee and the appointed Members' Panels, was authorised by law. Councillor Lady Porter did not receive any legal advice which could have led her to believe that it was open to the Council to engage in gerrymandering or to exercise its powers to secure an electoral advantage for the Conservative Party. She does not claim that the Council was engaged in gerrymandering or in exercising its powers to secure an electoral advantage for the Conservative Party. She does not claim that she received legal advice that it was lawful for the Council to engage in gerrymandering or to exercise its powers to secure an electoral advantage for the Conservative Party. On the contrary, she received legal advice for the City Solicitor that the Council was not entitled to exercise its powers for an ulterior purpose. Neither this advice nor the advice from Mr Sullivan QC gave any support for targeting designation in the key/marginal wards to promote the electoral advantage of the Conservative Party. As Councillor Lady Porter was aware, that could not lawfully be done.

    I am further strengthened in my conclusion by the evasive, false and misleading evidence given to me by Councillor Lady Porter in interview as to the reason for the selection of the 8 key wards, the nature of the targets adopted and the monitoring which took place against those targets and by the misleading answers she gave in response to questions at Council meetings. Councillor Lady Porter did not admit that the designated sales policy was introduced for the purpose of securing electoral advantage for the Conservative Party in the 1990 local government elections in the City of Westminster. If Councillor Lady Porter had believed that the policy of adopting an extended programme of designated sales in order to secure electoral advantage for the Conservative Party was legally acceptable and supported by legal advice, she had ample opportunity to tell me that this was what the Council was doing and that she had received legal advice that it was lawful for the Council so to do."

In relation to Mr Weeks, very similar findings were made in paras 1596 and 1600 at pp 583-585.

    36. The Divisional Court found as follows (at p 179):

    "The position of [Dame Shirley Porter] in relation to legal advice was initially, as reflected in the opening skeleton argument on her behalf, that she never sought or received advice which could have led her to believe that it was open to the council to exercise its powers to secure an electoral advantage for the majority party. In her affidavit she said her duty as a councillor was 'to decide matters in council only upon considerations relevant to local government factors identified by officers.' . . . She also said that [the city solicitor's] advice that there must not be any ulterior motive came as no surprise in the light of her experience and she did not understand leading counsel's advice on 5 May to have differed from that of [the city solicitor]. In the light of this evidence, although we accept that [Dame Shirley Porter] was always anxious to obtain and follow legal advice, it is, in our judgment, impossible for [Dame Shirley Porter] to contend that she believed at any stage that targeting marginal wards for electoral advantage was legally permissible".

The Divisional Court then, in relation to Mr Weeks, found (at p 179):

    "[Mr Weeks'] evidence in cross-examination was that, as a result of counsel's advice on 5 May it was clear 'that you could not just designate for 250 in the marginal wards' and that he greeted that advice 'with some relief' because a major aspect of contentiousness could be removed. He said that, following counsel's advice, he and other members 'immediately abandoned' talk of designating blocks in marginal wards and the lists produced 'after 5 May were constructed on other grounds'. Whether that evidence is credible we shall consider later. But it provides no basis whatever for suggesting that, if [Mr Weeks] continued to be party to a scheme for targeting designated sales in marginal wards for electoral advantage, he did so in reliance on legal advice."

    37. In the Court of Appeal Robert Walker LJ, in a passage to part of which reference has already been made, said at p 1488:

    "The way in which Dame Shirley's case has been presented has varied from time to time. Only in this court, I think, has much emphasis been placed on her reliance on legal advice. In her oral evidence she said that she was well aware that local authority resources must not be used for party political ends, and that the legal advice which she received came as no surprise to her. She also said that it never occurred to her to ask to see Mr Sullivan's advice in writing. She did not contend, either in her oral evidence or through her counsel (apart from drawing attention to [the city solicitor's] unfortunate references to devising or constructing arguments), that she was relying on any legal advice to the effect that an unlawful policy could be made lawful by camouflage. On the basis of Mr England's 'Note to Leader' it seems likely that Mr Sullivan's unambiguous advice was distorted in the course of transmission to Dame Shirley, although in the absence of any minutes of the meeting of the chairmen's group on the evening of 5 May 1987 (at which Mr England was present) it is impossible to gauge the degree of distortion. But as the Divisional Court found, she cannot at any stage have believed (either in reliance on legal advice or otherwise) that targeting marginal wards for electoral advantage was a lawful use of council resources."

As already noted, Robert Walker LJ considered the position of Mr Weeks to be similar but if anything even clearer.

    38. Counsel for Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks naturally placed much reliance on the contrary views expressed by the majority in the Court of Appeal. In the course of his judgment (at pp 1445-1446) Kennedy LJ said:

    "I remind myself that the Divisional Court had the advantage of seeing the two appellants, as well as others, when they gave evidence, and clearly that court was not particularly impressed by these two appellants, but what I cannot follow is how the court was able to find these appellants guilty of wilful misconduct having regard to its conclusions in relation to those important factual issues which I set out at the beginning of this section of the judgment, conclusions which led the court to conclude that three out of five appeals must be allowed. I recognise that long before 5 May 1987 Dame Shirley, but not Mr Weeks, had received legal advice from [the city solicitor], but on 5 May 1987 the possibility of targeting sales in marginal wards for political gain was put to leading counsel of considerable standing. Mr England, who received and reported upon counsel's advice, was led to believe that designating city-wide would not be unlawful merely because it met Dame Shirley's objective of 250 in marginal wards. The judgment of the Divisional Court simply does not explain why the advice of leading counsel did not affect Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks as it affected Mr England, and for that matter Mr Hartley and Mr Phillips, and I cannot make good the omission because there seems to have been no reason to make any distinction. The Divisional Court said that the purpose of the appellant throughout was 'to achieve unlawful electoral advantage'. The use of the word 'unlawful' begs the question. Their submission is that having taken legal advice they, like the others, believed that electoral advantage could lawfully be pursued by the route envisaged in Mr England's report of his consultation with Mr Sullivan, and thereafter the route chosen was, they believed, entirely legitimate . . . I recognise, of course, that in the Divisional Court the appellants contended that the great increase in the number of designated properties was not promoted in order to achieve 250 sales per annum in marginal wards, and that the Divisional Court held otherwise, but in all essential matters the records speak for themselves. On 5 May 1987 counsel and the officers who attended on him knew all there was to know about Dame Shirley's ambition as to sales in marginal wards. The Divisional Court was critical of both appellants for saying that, in the light of Mr Sullivan's advice, the policy was abandoned. The court said, 96 LGR 157, 185, that they 'lied', but on any view option 3 was not the proposal which Mr Sullivan was asked to consider. It was only formulated as a result of his advice. As Mr McMullen pointed out, those who wish to offend against the law do not usually consult lawyers of good reputation, give them access to all relevant information, and then act in accordance with their understanding of the lawyer's advice, arranging for further advice to be obtained as events progress. In most cases where a breach of section 20 has been found proved, the evidence shows an unwillingness to obtain or a defiance of legal advice. That is not this case."

Schiemann LJ (at p 1453) said:

    "As the division of opinion in this court shows, there is no doubt that the borderline between what is permissible and what is not permissible in the context of what Dame Shirley was trying to achieve is not easily perceived by lawyers and even less easily perceived by laymen. It is clear to me that Dame Shirley was seeking to avoid doing anything illegal and that this was the reason why she laid bare her hopes to her legal advisers and asked for legal advice."

    39. The issue of inconsistency of findings is one which I consider separately below. The issue here is whether the majority of the Court of Appeal had any sustainable grounds for rejecting the very clear conclusions reached by the primary fact-finders, the auditor and the Divisional Court. Before the auditor Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks did not contend that they had pursued the designated sales policy on legal advice. At that stage they were seeking to distance themselves from the policy. In the Divisional Court they contended that the policy had been abandoned after 5 May 1987, a contention found by that court to be dishonest and untrue. Only in the Court of Appeal was the case made that reliance had been placed on legal advice, as Robert Walker LJ pointed out in the passage quoted in paragraph 37 above. It is not clear to me how the Court of Appeal majority felt able to reject the very clear findings of the auditor and the Divisional Court, which in my opinion are entitled to stand. But I draw attention to two particular, in my view fatal, weaknesses in the majority reasoning. First, it is simply not true that Mr Sullivan was given access to all relevant information or that Dame Shirley laid bare her hopes to her legal advisers. Mr Sullivan received no written instructions and gave no written advice. There were two questions which the council should have put to him. The first was whether it was lawful to promote a policy of designating council properties for sale in marginal wards for the purpose of securing an electoral advantage for the majority party at the forthcoming council elections. That question was put to Mr Sullivan and he answered it in the negative, as he was bound to do. The second, follow-up, question should have been whether, if that policy would be unlawful, the policy would become lawful if, with the same objective, and in order to conceal the targeting of sales in marginal wards, the designated sales policy were extended across the City of Westminster. That question was never put. No one, including Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks, could have had any doubt at all what the answer would have been if it had. Mr Sullivan was never told of the course on which the council proposed to embark or had embarked. The second weakness is found in the history of pretence, obfuscation and prevarication which surrounded the policy from May 1987 onwards. If the policy was genuinely believed to be lawful, albeit controversial, there was no need for such intensive camouflage.

    40. I can for my part see no reason to question the very clear findings made by the auditor and the Divisional Court on this question.

Inconsistency

    41. The auditor's findings of wilful misconduct against Mr Hartley, Mr England and Mr Phillips were not upheld by the Divisional Court, and it is argued on behalf of Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks that they cannot fairly or rationally be found liable if those others are to be exonerated. The inconsistency, as he saw it, of the Divisional Court findings was the main ground upon which Kennedy LJ allowed the appeal by Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks.

    42. In the case of Mr Hartley the Divisional Court found his conduct to be unlawful and so to amount to misconduct because of the improper motives of others of which he was aware. But the Divisional Court was prepared to accept that he did not appreciate the unlawfulness of his conduct and genuinely believed that his own overriding belief in wider home ownership rendered his conduct lawful (p 199). It accordingly found that his misconduct was not wilful.

    43. In the case of Mr England the Divisional Court found that he was not guilty of wilful misconduct down to 8 July 1987, whatever his doubts and equivocations, and although critical of his conduct thereafter the Divisional Court did not find him guilty of wilful misconduct (p 195).

    44. The Divisional Court found that Mr Phillips was guilty of misconduct. But it was not prepared to conclude that he must have known that what was proposed was unlawful as well as improper (p 202). The Divisional Court considered whether he was reckless. In the results it was not satisfied to the standard required that he had been reckless (p 203).

    45. Robert Walker LJ found this the most difficult aspect of the whole case and it caused him some anxiety (p 1494) and unease (p 1496) and he thought there had perhaps been some element of mercy in the Divisional Court's conclusions (pp 1494, 1495). But he could not say they were not conclusions which were open to the Divisional Court (p 1496). I share Robert Walker LJ's anxiety and unease. It is understandable that the Divisional Court was reluctant to be excessively critical of officers, who were subject to considerable pressure from elected members, as the Divisional Court pointed out (p 186). Mr Hartley's conduct does not earn that measure of indulgence. But the Divisional Court had the advantage of hearing these three witnesses. It was rightly alert to the high standard required before a finding of this gravity could be sustained. It may very well be that Messrs Hartley, England and Phillips were fortunate to be exonerated, to the limited extent that they were exonerated. But the findings made against Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks were, in truth, very strong. They were the leader and deputy leader of the council, and were respectively the prime architect and midwife of this policy. I am satisfied that no injustice is done to either of them by upholding the findings of the auditor and the Divisional Court.

Causation

    46. At the forefront of their submissions on behalf of Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks counsel advanced an argument to the effect that whatever the impropriety or unlawfulness of their clients' purpose and motive this did not render the decision of the Housing Committee on 8 July 1987 unlawful. That was a decision lawfully made by the members of the committee (not including Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks) for lawful housing reasons, untainted by the unlawful designated sales policy, and accordingly anything which happened thereafter was not attributable to any unlawful motivation on the part of Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks. As Schiemann LJ made plain at pp 1451-1453 of his judgment, this was an argument which particularly impressed him (although he made plain at p 1453 that he did not accept that Dame Shirley Porter had been either dishonest or improperly motivated). In my opinion this argument must be rejected. It is an agreed fact (recited in paragraph 14 above) that once the city-wide designated sales policy had been adopted by the majority party it was to all intents and purposes bound to be approved by the committee. The auditor concluded (p 325 of his decision, para 885):

    "In the event that taking into account party electoral advantage does not invalidate a decision unless it becomes the dominant factor, I give my view as to whether party electoral advantage was such a dominant factor. I have concluded that the overwhelming inference to be drawn from the evidence is that party electoral advantage was the dominant consideration which influenced the Housing Committee in reaching a decision to adopt option 3 (increase designated sales by 500 per annum) and in selecting the properties designated for sale. I find as a fact that the electoral advantage of the majority party was the driving force behind the policy of increased designated sales and that that consideration was the predominant consideration which influenced both the decision to adopt option 3 and the selection of the properties designated for sale."

The conclusion of the Divisional Court on the committee's decision of 8 July 1987 (at p 181) is one that I would, for my part, accept:

    "In our view this decision was substantially influenced by a wish to alter the composition of the electorate by increasing the Conservative vote in marginal wards by the sale of council properties, and was therefore unlawful. The policy proposed at the meeting by [Mr Hartley] and adopted by the committee was one which gave effect to this purpose, whatever may have been the reasons for the votes of individual members. It is perfectly possible, in law and common sense, for a corrupt principal to cause a result through an innocent agent or (in the context discussed by Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead in Royal Brunei Airlines Sdn Bhd v Tan [1995] 2 AC 378, 385) a dishonest third party to be liable for a breach of trust perpetrated by a trustee acting innocently. In the present case, whatever the reasons of individual members for voting as they did, the option for which they voted was placed before the committee, in part at least, in order to achieve the improper purpose to which we have referred."

    47. If however it is appropriate to inquire into the motivation of the majority party members who voted for option 3 in the committee on 8 July 1987, the conclusion does not assist Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks. Whatever his own reasons for supporting that option, Mr Hartley was very well aware of the purpose which underlay the policy. He was, as already noted, found guilty of misconduct by the Divisional Court. In the auditor's decision he said that the late Dr Dutt, who was Vice-Chairman of the committee,

    "was also aware of the objective to increase the majority party's voting strength in marginal wards by the adoption of an extended programme of designated sales in those wards. In my view, he took into account the electoral advantage of the Conservative Party and sought to promote it in his voting and otherwise."

(The auditor in his provisional findings expressed conclusions adverse to Dr Dutt, who disputed those findings and took his own life. The auditor, in his decision, made no finding of personal liability against Dr Dutt). If those two tainted votes are discounted, the majority party had no majority of votes on the committee. The auditor found that Councillor Warner tried to exercise an independent judgment but was influenced by the joint report laid before the committee (which contained no hint of the true purpose of the policy) and by the views of Mr Hartley (p 323, para 879). The same finding was made in relation to Councillors Bianco and Hooper, save that they were unable to and did not exercise any independent judgment in relation to adoption of the list of properties for designation circulated at the meeting, which had been devised by officers working with the chairman to achieve target numbers of sales in certain marginal wards in order to secure an electorate advantage for the majority party in those wards (pp 323-324, para 880). In the case of Councillors Evans and Buxton the auditor found that they neither sought to exercise nor exercised any independent judgment in relation to voting for the adoption for option 3: they simply relied on the joint report and the views of Mr Hartley. The inescapable truth is that while the chairman and vice-chairman of the committee knew of the purpose which underlay option 3, the back bench members were in no position to exercise an informed independent judgment because they were never given a clear picture of why the policy had been adopted and what it was intended to achieve. The committee was used by the party leadership to secure approval of a policy of which the purpose was never fully explained. In my opinion there was no informed exercise of independent judgment by members of the committee such as could break the chain of causation between the conduct of Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks and the consequences which followed.

The liability of Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks

    48. The Divisional Court's findings adverse to Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks, reached on a mass of evidence, were fully justified, if not inevitable. The Court of Appeal majority erred in departing from them. The passage of time and the familiarity of the accusations made against Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks cannot and should not obscure the unpalatable truth that this was a deliberate, blatant and dishonest misuse of public power. It was a misuse of power by both of them not for the purpose of financial gain but for that of electoral advantage. In that sense it was corrupt. The auditor may have been strictly wrong to describe their conduct as gerrymandering, but it was certainly unlawful and he was right to stigmatise it as disgraceful.

Preparation of Papers

    49. The auditor held Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks responsible for a sum amounting (with interest) to £10,126 attributable to the cost of preparing papers relating to the promotion of the electoral advantage of the majority party. The basis of his finding was that this was an unlawful misuse of the time of council officers. There is no dispute concerning the quantum of this sum. The Court of Appeal held by a majority that since Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks did not transgress, the cost of preparing these papers could not be laid at their door (p 1447). For reasons already given, I would hold that they did transgress and would hold them liable to make good this sum.

Quantum

    50. The power of local authorities to dispose of land held by them under section 32(1) of the Housing Act 1985 was subject to the consent of the secretary of state. By section 34(2) of that Act the secretary of state's consent could be given generally, and was so given by a ministerial letter issued in 1981 and continuing to have effect under the 1985 Act by virtue of section 2(2) of the Housing (Consequential Provisions) Act 1985. By paragraph B(2) of this letter it was stated:

    "A local authority may dispose of any house, if that house is vacant, to any individual who intends to use it as his only or principal home, provided that the disposal is effected for a price, consideration or rent which is equal to the current market value of the house with vacant possession."

It was also open to a local authority to dispose of properties at a discount of between 30% and 70%, which is what the council in fact did.

    51. As explained by the Divisional Court at p 204 of its judgment, the auditor certified in accordance with section 20(1) of the Local Government Finance Act 1982 that some £31.67m was due jointly and severally from Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks (in addition, at that stage, to Mr Hartley, Mr England, Mr Phillips and another officer). This was a net sum, arrived at by calculating the gross loss or deficiency and then deducting from that figure the financial benefits enjoyed by the council as a result of the sale of designated dwellings, such as the reduced cost of management and maintenance of the council - owned housing stock. The net sum also allowed for interest on the net losses. Most of the items in the auditor's computation are not (subject to liability) in dispute. But there is one major issue: the treatment of the discounts allowed by the council on selling designated properties pursuant to what must, for present purposes, be treated as an unlawful policy. The auditor based his calculation on the open market value, with vacant possession, of the properties sold. He did not reduce his calculated figure of loss to reflect the discounted prices at which the council sold, and at which the council would have sold even if the policy had been a lawful one, if pursuant to a lawful policy the council would have sold at all. On this basis he reached a loss figure under this head of £15.476m.

    52. Robert Walker LJ (with, as already noted, the assent of Kennedy LJ on this point) took a different view. He said (at p 1502):

    "In this case the relevant element of loss is the loss of part of the council's stock of social housing. It was not a loss in a commercial venture of selling dwellings with vacant possession. In my judgment the Divisional Court erred in its approach. It should have accepted the submission that there was no loss if the discounted prices actually received by the council exceeded the value of the dwellings as tenanted social housing. There was ample evidence that the discounted prices did exceed that value, and it is not necessary to go into the subsidiary issue as to Ellis & Co's valuations. Any other approach would, it seems to me, be inconsistent with the auditor's separate investigation and conclusion as to the additional costs of housing homeless persons which the council had to incur as a result of its own stock of social housing having been depleted by the designated sales policy."

On this basis he would have disallowed the full sum for which the auditor held Dame Shirley Porter and Mr Weeks liable under this head.

 
continue previous