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HELP estoppeled in its tracks?

AFTER the HELP-dominated Letchworth town council lost the employment tribunal case brought by former staff members, many have been wondering what the term 'estoppel' means.    
  Eight months before the case was heard, the judge said that estoppel might apply. This would have stopped HELP from withholding payments from its staff: the council would have been 'estopped' from denying its liability. 
   In commercial agreements, when a person makes a promise and intends the other person to rely on the promise, the first person is stopped from denying that promise later.  
   That applies even if the person making the promise did not mean to make it, or if it was a mistake, or if they should not have made the promise in the first place. 
   In law, the fact the council has held elections and new people were in charge is immaterial. Staff contracts are with the council, not individual councillors.
   Estoppel should have been taken seriously. It means that even if the previous administration had been in the wrong (which they were not) the staff would still have succeeded in their case.
   Defendants using their own money would have carefully considered the risk of continuing to defend the case at that point; they would certainly make sure they fully assessed the risk, and that anyone else who was going to be responsible for the decision understood it.
  It might be argued that estoppel is a difficult concept to grasp, although it is relatively straightforward if explained properly. But any lawyer would – or should – understand it.
Cllr George Ritchie
   The only witness for the council was former HELP chairman George Ritchie – who is a lawyer. Ritchie was in court in January to hear what the judge said about estoppel. He made a report to the council’s personnel committee in February. 
   Ritchie’s report did not advise the council that the judge had raised estoppel. Ritchie did not set out that estoppel might operate or explain what it might mean.
   In his report, Ritchie also told his colleagues that the council had applied for costs. He did not advise the council that costs are very rarely awarded in employment tribunals. Making an application for costs carries absolutely no assurance whatsoever that the application will succeed. That was not explained in Ritchie’s report either.
   He stated that witness statements were struck out. That was queried at the council meeting in March by Town Council Supporter Sue Johnson. As a result of her intervention, the relevant orders were circulated to all council members. 
   They make it clear that there was no order for strike-out. The first HELP resignation came two days after the order was circulated to the councillors.
   The council minutes record that the decision to continue to fight the case was taken on the basis of  Ritchie’s report.  
When parties take a case to tribunal, ACAS is under a statutory duty to offer conciliation services to all parties. If ACAS had not offered services to the council, it would be in beach of its statutory duty. 
   The council has never alleged that ACAS did not offer conciliation services to the council. HELP’s second resignation came when it became clear that the council had rejected an approach from ACAS. 
    It seems some HELP members decided to fight this case no matter what the cost or the outcome. The question is, why?  
    One answer might be that it was an opportunity for HELP to use taxpayers’ money to try to get a judgement that HELP thought would be highly critical of its political opponents, with no financial risk to themselves.
    If HELP had obtained a judgement that said the previous administration was unreasonable, but the money still had to be paid anyway, in HELP’s eyes that could have been money well spent as a political stick to beat opponents with.
    It would explain why Ritchie did not refer to estoppel in his report, and why the council rejected the approach from ACAS and why Ritchie did not explain the limited likelihood of a successful costs application to the council.
   The basis of the HELP case was not that the previous administration was unreasonable. The HELP case was that the councillors who wanted a town council were so totally and completely unreasonable that no reasonable person could agree with their decisions. 
   This defence has never succeeded before – and in fact has only been tried twice. On both occasions a High Court judge strongly criticised public bodies who try it, warning that it is a huge waste public money.
   It has thus cost Letchworth taxpayers £50,000 to find out what Ritchie should – must – already have know. 
   Now that they have lost resoundingly, Ritchie tells the press and public that there is new legislation and they are going to get on and abolish the council. 
   He did not say where this new legislation can be found. We look forward to hearing more on this topic. 

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