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The Royal Courts of Justice building on the Strand, London William Turrell 10 May 2024

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Decision delayed by shorthand shortage

(updated )

The result of a judicial review of Canterbury City Council's decision to grant planning permission for a "winery" at Highland Court Farm near Bridge was unexpectedly delayed on Friday, for want of a shorthand writer to transcribe the judge's remarks.

Arguments in the case had been heard at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand over the previous two days.

Before court rose early Thursday afternoon, the judge, Her Honour Alice Robinson, said she would read out her verdict 24 hours later. The judge added she wanted to deal with costs at the same time, rather than have them "hanging over" in writing.

Friday's session in Court 1 was scheduled to begin at 2pm. By quarter-past the judge had still not appeared, but this was assumed to be because she was still finalising her comments.

Not long after, one of the court staff entered and placed a couple of large binders on the bench, suggesting we might get underway imminently.

The first indication something had gone wrong came shortly before 2:30pm, in a brief conversation between the two staff. One entered carrying a sheaf of handwritten pages, and asked her male colleague: "can you do shorthand writing?" ... "she says it has to be shorthand writing" ... "well you'll have to go and talk to her then".

For the next few minutes, they came and went a number of times, conducting conversations with the judge and others out of view of the court.

It was impossible not to feel sympathy for the staff member: she clearly realised the seriousness of the situation and wanted to resolve it for the judge, yet there seemed nothing she could do. She conducted a half-hearted search for any suitable recording or transcription equipment in the courtroom, but became resigned to its futility and for a moment just stood at the front of the court, staring into the middle distance with a look of frustration and defeat.

At 2:37pm, Judge Robinson entered in her purple robes. She spoke for about a minute, firstly apologising to everyone for the delay. She said she was unable to read her judgement without a shorthand writer, and there was none. She did not know why, as she had listed the case "for read out". (The author can confirm it was worded as such on the Daily Cause List on the Courts Service website, the printed copy in the glass display case in the Great Hall, and on the notice clipped to a board by the entrance to Court 1.)

She said the court associate had spoken to his manager and there was insufficient time to resolve it that day – court is supposed to finish at 4:30pm.

The case would need to be re-listed, the judge said. But she did not know when that would be, and it would also depend on her other (unspecified) commitments, although she was confident the court would be able to find room.

It couldn't be Monday though, as the list for the 13th had already been published twenty minutes after the court rose again.

The "Daily Cause" list entry from the website. (Photos inside the building aren't allowed.)

While Judge Robinson was calm and pleasant, it is easy to imagine her deeply frustrated, given her keenness to keep the case on a tight schedule so that, as she indicated on the first morning, she had at least a chance of reading her judgement by the end of the week.

The barristers too shortened their intended remarks to comply with the judge's wish to hear the case in a day and a half.

Ben Fullbrook of Landmark Chambers - representing claimant Sarah Moakes - initially advised Judge Robinson that his closing speech would take approximately 30 minutes, but after she hinted that was still longer than she'd like, limited himself to twenty instead; therefore he could not mention everything he wanted.

Isabella Tafur (Francis Taylor Building) was representing Gary Walters of HICO Group, the "Interested Party" in the case. She began speaking at 11:13am Thursday morning and addressed the court for ten minutes shy of two hours. More than once she too said she was conscious of the time.

A delay at this stage in proceedings wasn't as disruptive as it could have been earlier: there's no requirement – nor necessarily great benefit – for any of the named parties themselves to attend the actual reading of the judgement, in some ways a formality and often "handed down" in writing only. Parties only need to send a barrister to act on their behalf. The barristers may decide to swap or "sub" as well, for scheduling and practical reasons, as happened on Friday with the defence (the City Council) and HICO.

Court delays are not only inconvenient to everyone concerned, but also create additional cost. Barristers, solicitors and other expensive or in-demand individuals must all be present at the right time for a case to progress.

Arguably delays created by mistakes or budget cuts to the court system itself are less excusable, than, for example, a juror held up by transport problems. Professional body The Law Society has long campaigned that the courts "are crumbling" and "plagued with delays".

The neo-gothic RCJ building was quieter on Friday, but a steady trickle of curious tourists still wandered in off the Strand to see the UK justice system up close for themselves, or perhaps simply for a brief respite from the intense heat of a late spring day in central London.

At one point two Americans entered the courtroom and sat in silence in the back row. After twenty minutes listening to nothing but the ticking antique clock, the tapping of lawyer's laptop keys, and a distant hum of air conditioning, one said to the other: "I'm ready to go now." They departed, missing the judge's arrival by two minutes.

by William Turrell at The Royal Courts of Justice, London

Summary of the case

Campaigner Sarah Moakes won the right to take Canterbury City Council to a judicial review last year, following their decision to grant planning permission for the "winery" near Bridge.

The development consists of three large warehouses up to 13 metres high, 150 parking spaces and dozens of HGV trailer bays, built fully within the Kent Downs National Landscape (AONB) and close to the Grade II listed Higham Park stately home, on an area of productive arable farmland.

Judge Robinson will rule on each of the following four grounds that environmental law firm Richard Buxton have prepared on Ms Moakes' behalf (our explanatory comments added in square brackets):

  • Ground 1: The Council failed to follow its constitution [the rules for speaking at Planning Committee meetings] and/or acted in a manner which was procedurally unfair

  • Ground 2: The Council failed to give “great weight” to the views of expert consultees [the "Statutory Consultees" are Natural England, the Kent Downs AONB Unit and Historic England. CPRE Kent's response has also been discussed in court] and/or failed to give reasons for disagreeing with them

  • Ground 3: The Council failed to have regard to the Medway Appeal [a proposed winery in Cuxton, elsewhere in same AONB. Planning appeal by developers rejected by planning inspector day before the latest planning committee mtg about Highland Court Farm] and/or failed to give reasons for disagreeing with it

  • Ground 4: The Officer's Report materially misled the Committee in advising that there was no definition of “exceptional circumstances” [a requirement for "major development" in an AONB, as specified in the NPPF, along with being "in the public interest"] and that this was a matter of planning judgment

When Judge Robinson does finally reveal her conclusions, we'll publish a copy of her full remarks and highlight the main points.

What you can do

CARE is backing Sarah Moakes' Judicial Review and the positions of Natural England, the Kent Downs National Landscape (AONB) team, Historic England and CPRE Kent.

Justice is expensive – anything you're able to donate to Sarah's CrowdJustice campaign would be highly appreciated.

Regardless of the Judicial Review outcome, the Highland Court site is still included in the council's revised 2040 Draft Local Plan (policy C17, pp. 64-66) with "viticulture" development and "further larger-scale commercial and business uses" extending beyond the factory warehouses that have already received planning permission. The revised policy criteria are worded in a way that acknowledges there will be "adverse impacts" on the AONB.

Wherever you live, please consider commenting on the Local Plan before the 3 June deadline and asking the council to remove policy C17 from it, to avoid further unnecessary harm to the AONB and the conservation area.