Court of Appeal upholds abolition of municipalities

Plans to turn the Corporations of Hamilton and St George into unelected quangos are likely to go ahead after the Court of Appeal rejected an appeal by City Hall.

The Corporation of Hamilton launched legal action to block the move last year and claimed that the Municipalities Amendment Act 2019 was unconstitutional.

The local authority lost the case but filed an appeal last November.

But the appeal was rejected in a 67-page ruling issued today.

Sir Christopher Clarke, the president of the Court of Appeal, wrote: “There has been no breach of the Corporation’s common law right to the protection of the law.

“Neither the amendment acts, nor the proposed reform act, if enacted, contravene Section 13 of the Constitution.

“I would, accordingly, dismiss the appeal.”

Appeal Judges Dame Elizabeth Gloster and Geoffrey Bell agreed.

Charles Gosling, the Mayor of Hamilton, said he was disappointed by the decision – and did not rule out further legal action.

Mr Gosling added: “We are naturally disappointed by the judge’s ruling in this matter and are currently in the process of reviewing the lengthy judgment with our legal team.

“We will report back to the corporation’s council members at a meeting next week, after which point we will determine a way forward.”

The Government would appoint the mayors and half of the councillors and the other councillors would be appointed by the relevant minister on the recommendation of a selection committee under the terms of the legislation.

The corporation argued that the Bill would give the Government “overwhelming” control of the municipalities and their properties, which would amount to an unconstitutional deprivation of property.

Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC, the counsel for the city, told the Court of Appeal that the legislation amounted to an “abolition” of the Corporation of Hamilton and it should not have been watered down to a question of political opinion.

He added: “The abolition of elections – people who have been residents in the City of Hamilton for generations now being told they must accept an essentially appointed body that is going to express their so-called voice, where there will be no direct voice whatsoever – that is the reason I am trying to locate this matter in constitutional principle and human rights, specifically the right of expression.”

But the Government, represented by Delroy Duncan QC, argued that the municipalities would retain control of their properties as quangos and the legislation would improve co-operation between the two bodies and the Government.

Sir Christopher said in the ruling: “The particular concern of the corporation is that the minister could, by direction, require the corporation to do something that was not municipal at all and therefore not within its powers.

“I do not share this concern for a number of reasons. I accept the submission made by Mr Duncan that the provision does not empower the minister to direct the corporation to do that which it lacks power to do under the Municipalities Act, which is the source of its powers.”

Sir Christopher added that the corporation’s loss of property argument should also be dismissed.

He said: “To the extent that the minister chooses to do so, he may restrict the corporation from acting, or require it to act in a particular way in relation to its property.

“But that does not, in my view, mean that the minister is, on account of his possession of such powers, to be regarded as, in effect, taking possession of the corporation or acquiring the rights of the corporation in or over it.”

The legislation was approved by the House of Assembly, but rejected by the Senate after independent and opposition senators voted against it and blocked it for a year.

The Act is expected to be brought back to the House of Assembly and – if approved – can be implemented without the need for it to go through the Senate again.

Elections for councillors to represent both corporations were scheduled to be held in May.

But last month the Government said it would postpone the ballot for a year because of the appeal.

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