Monitoring officer expresses concern after committee votes to disclose legal advice

Pembrokeshire County Council faces conducting future litigation with “its hands tied behind its back” if a councillor is successful in having legal advice disclosed, its monitoring officer has warned.

Independent councillor Jacob Williams has won a vote that legal advice to the council should be disclosed concerning a former councillor who was convicted of raping two children.

He said on his blog: “I convinced [the scrutiny] committee meeting to recommend that this information should be publicly released.

“The final decision will be made by a vote of all 60 councillors, at the Christmas full council meeting on 13th December. Senior officers are very keen to keep it under wraps.”

The advice concerns former Conservative councillor Dai Boswell, who was jailed in July for what a council statement called “extremely serious sexual offences against two children”.

According to Cllr Williams the council asked James Goudie QC for advice on whether Mr Boswell continued to qualify as a councillor after he was charged but before being convicted.

Cllr Williams said that Mr Boswell ceased to attend enough council meetings to continue his membership under the rule requiring attendance at least every six months, but the council said he had attended certain meetings that could count towards this.

In his successful motion to the scrutiny committee Cllr Williams proposed that the council should make public both Mr Goudie’s legal opinion and the instructions that procured this.

But a report to the meeting by monitoring officer Claire Jones said statutory officers had to be able to protect the authority’s legal rights, liabilities and obligations as they saw fit.

“Creating a precedent for publication of such information clearly should not be embarked upon lightly as it could place the authority at risk of future claims and litigation and undermines the ability of officers to deal with highly sensitive legal issues on behalf of the authority,” she said.

“If instructions and advice are to be routinely publicised on the council’s website and edited or full versions subsequently appear in social or other media, the authority will effectively be conducting litigation and business with its hands tied behind its back.”

Ms Jones said the redacted instructions and advice would be made available to councillors where “the common law principle of ‘need to know’ applied”.

She said the Freedom of Information Act 2000 made legal professional privilege exempt from requests for release, and instructions to and advice from counsel would usually be treated as exempt information under Paragraph 16 of Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972.

Mark Smulian

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