FINAL CROWDJUSTICE LEGAL ADVICE3 Jan 2020
ver the last few months I, and others, have been seeking legal advice on whether we could seek to reclaim public money from the Garden Bridge collapse. Using CrowdJustice, generous donors raised £5,000 to helps us get this final legal advice, building on historic and ongoing pro bono advice.
I now have an update on this collective effort, and I am very disappointed to tell you that the news is not good. Previous pro bono legal advice from Unity Legal Solutions, and further pro bono legal advice from Davis Matthias QC which was positive in principle about a Judicial Review of the Charity Commission, indicated that this CrowdJustice had a decent chance of a successful opinion, which could be then taken to the next stage of legal action.
Unfortunately, I am advised by the appointed QC, Jason Coppel, that in his opinion there is now no viable route to pursue legal action with the aim of reclaiming any of the £43m of public money spent on the Garden Bridge.
THE LEGAL ADVICE
As outlined in the CrowdJustice page, there had been previous pro bono legal advice about the conduct of Garden Bridge Trust [GBT] trustees. This was received in early 2018, and it indicated that there might be some legal mechanism for a taxpayer to seek repayment or redress for the money wasted. Since then, Transport for London [TfL] has paid out the final tranche of £5.3m of public money to the GBT as part of the GBT’s winding up process.
In 2019, the Charity Commission [CC] published its “Concluding Report” into the GBT, in which it states: “the fact that £50m of public funds were spent by a charity and produced no demonstrable public benefit or impact represents a failure for charity which risks undermining public trust”.
I consider the CC report to be insufficiently robust – not least because it somehow concluded that there was no mismanagement and that no one was at fault for this debacle, choosing instead to spread responsibility vaguely across the charity sector. I felt that the CC report did not consider, for example, that the amount of funding GBT told TfL it had raised immediately before the fateful signing of the construction contract was higher than the levels it reported to its own trustees in contemporaneous board meetings of the GBT.
Jason Coppel QC was appointed and asked to consider four possible routes to legal action against various bodies and individuals who were involved with the project and key decisions that triggered so much expenditure. These four possible routes were:
1. A legal proceeding against the Trustees by a member of the public who wanted to the Garden Bridge completed,
2. A Judicial Review of the Charity Commission’s decision to conclude its investigation of the Trust,
3. A Judicial Review of TFL’s decision to release the final tranche of £5.3 million,
4. A private prosecution of senior TFL officials for misconduct in public office.
Mr Coppel QC was also asked to consider if there were other remedies available to the public in the event that none of the above were considered practicable. In a thorough and detailed response, Mr Coppel QC unfortunately concludes that the scope for legal recourse by a member of the public is limited and unlikely to succeed. His summary response reads:
1. …it is unlikely that a member of the public who would have wished to see the Garden Bridge constructed would be permitted to bring legal proceedings against the Trustees pursuant to s. 115(1) of the Charities Act 2011.
2. I do not think that there would be grounds for successful judicial review of the decision of the [Charity] Commission to conduct a further or more extensive investigation of the Trust, in light of the alleged misrepresentation or for other reasons.
3. I am similarly pessimistic regarding the possibility of a successful judicial review of TfL for agreeing to pay the final tranche of £5.3m of funding to the Trust.
4. I have seen no evidence which would provide grounds for a private prosecution of [senior TFL officials] for misconduct in public office in connection with the alleged misrepresentation or otherwise.
With regards to the last request to Mr Coppel QC, asking to consider if there were other remedies open to the public, unfortunately this also seems to be a cul de sac. Because the GBT was a private organisation, any action would be within the field of charity law, and scope for action by a member of public in this arena is limited.
Also, any new action by the public against the body responsible for the disposal of public money, TfL, would be through a Judicial Review, which has a short time limit and for the critical funding decisions by TfL this timeframe has now expired.
I want to offer my heartfelt thanks for your support, and regret I cannot provide a better outcome. Whether you donated a few pounds or a greater amount, your generosity and concern for accountability regarding the Garden Bridge is hugely appreciated.
WHAT DOES THIS NOW MEAN?
With deep regret, unless new evidence emerges it seems like the end of any possible legal action against any actors or bodies related to the GBT has been reached. While those involved have been heavily criticised by bodies ranging from the National Audit Office to the London Assembly, it is an embarrassment for a great city like London that a scheme so flawed in idea and management could have moved from idea to disappearance at a cost of £53m without any individual or body held to account. The scandal of the Garden Bridge should be looked back upon as a warning for political over-reach and charity management. It was an absurd project that should not have got as far as it did, and risked huge damage to London’s urban fabric, trust in democracy and taxpayer funding.
However, the fact it was stopped, through local community action, public opposition, diligent journalism, and dogged investigating by London Assembly members of all parties, just shows that political arrogance can be countered, and reckless vanity projects can be stopped. This is the greatest legacy to come from the whole project, and every time you walk across Waterloo Bridge the absence of Boris Johnson’s Garden Bridge should stand as testament to that strength in community.