A council has been heavily criticised by a judge for its ‘vindictive’ attempt to ‘punish’ a solicitor whom it viewed as a costly thorn in its side. Joanna Trafford had represented a number of alleged tripping accident victims in damages claims against Blackpool Borough Council – which ‘retaliated’ by refusing to renew her office lease.
The Council was landlord to Ms Trafford and her firm at the town’s enterprise centre. When she applied to renew her lease, the Council simply said no, making no bones about the fact that its decision was driven by Ms Trafford’s success in representing personal injury claimants against the local authority.
With the support of the Law Society, Ms Trafford mounted a judicial review challenge to the Council’s refusal and, in upholding her claim, Judge Stephen Davies had no doubt that the decision was ‘obviously irrational’, motivated by a ‘desire to punish’ the solicitor and that it was ‘fundamentally tainted by illegality’.
The Council had faced only one tripping accident claim in 2010 but, by 2012, that figure had risen to well over 100. Determined to ‘send a message’ to the local legal sector, the Council’s Corporate Asset Management Group (CAMG) took the view that Ms Trafford’s firm was engaged in ‘claims farming’ and that there were good grounds for terminating their commercial relationship.
However, in written submissions, the Law Society emphasised that there was ‘no conceivable basis’ on which Ms Trafford or her firm could be criticised for acting within the law to enable genuinely injured claimants to obtain just compensation from the local authority.
The judge declined to make a finding that the Council had set out to cause ‘serious harm’ to the firm, to force its closure or to put pressure on it to move out of the Blackpool area or to desist from taking instructions in tripping accident claims. However, he said of the Council’s decision, “It was, in short, an act of retaliation, pure and simple, to punish Ms Trafford’s firm by causing it some difficulty and inconvenience.”
The Council’s lawyers had argued that it was entitled to view the activities of Ms Trafford and her firm as a drain on its scarce resources and that the decision not to renew her lease was a purely private matter between landlord and tenant. However, the judge found that the decision was taken in the exercise of public law powers and that it was thus amenable to judicial review.
He added, “I am satisfied that, based upon its conclusion that Ms Trafford’s firm was engaged in claims farming which harmed the Council’s own financial interests, the only consideration which it (the Council) had regard to when deciding whether or not even to consider her request for a new tenancy was its desire to punish her for engaging in that activity.
“The exercise of a power with the sole or the dominant intention of punishing Ms Trafford and subjecting her firm to a detriment, in circumstances where there was no evidence that she was actually doing anything at all unlawful or improper, was the intentionally improper exercise of the power conferred on the Council and the exercise of that power for unauthorised purposes.” The CAMG had failed to consider whether there was actually any evidence of claims farming and its desire to punish Ms Trafford was ‘an illegitimate consideration’.
Although Ms Trafford’s lease expired in June 2013, the judge said that the Council had ‘reasonably’ allowed her firm to stay on in the enterprise centre under a tenancy at will pending the outcome of the proceedings. The court’s ruling obliged the Council to consider afresh whether to renew the firm’s lease.