This report has been sent to us by an observer.
‘The Tribunal hearing into whether East Devon District Council (EDDC) was correct in refusing to release information following an Information Commissioner (IC) ruling that it should do, took place at Exeter Magistrates Court on 28 August.
Sidmouth resident Jeremy Woodward had submitted an FOI request to EDDC, seeking information about the proposed relocation of the EDDC offices from The Knowle, Sidmouth.
The first session included detailed consideration of the role of Steve Pratten of Davis Langdon. Mr Pratten has been working full time on the project for EDDC; it was said that he was “embedded” into the staffing structure at EDDC, and had access to extensive email correspondence and contacts at EDDC. He said that Richard Cohen was acting as his line manager.
This confused the Tribunal Chairman who thought that it was at odds with the description of Mr Pratten being an independent consultant. The Chairman said the Tribunal needed to understand Mr Pratten`s role ast EDDC “without any fudging.”
The discussion produced the first bizarre moment of the morning. In seeking to demonstrate his independence from Davis Langdon directors on the project, Mr Pratten said that he only attended the DL offices in Bristol four or five times over two years, for reasons such as when he had IT problems to resolve. When he did so he had “extremely informal debriefs” (rather than meetings) with directors, which lasted only five or ten minutes. The directors did give him input from time to time – but not during the informal debriefs.
This prompted the IC barrister to ask Mr Pratten if they were “silent meetings”, where the directors might “shrug their shoulders, but they didn`t speak”.
When Richard Cohen of EDDC was on the stand he was questioned by the EDDC barrister, who was reading extracts of documents exceedingly quickly. Roger Giles asked the Chairman if he could ask the barrister to read at a speed at which the twenty five or so members of the public and press present could take in what was being said. The Chairman agreed with the request; however, later in the proceedings we were again treated to machine gun speed delivery.
The second bizarre element of the proceedings occurred towards the end of the morning session when Richard Cohen was being cross-examined by Richard Thurlow for Jeremy Woodward, who was unable to be present. Mr Pratten appeared to be indicating to Richard Cohen how he should answer the questions (I am far from being an expert in legal proceedings – but I thought that this was not permissible). There was considerable public laughter when Richard Thurlow asked Richard Cohen if he checked Steve Pratten`s work – and Steve Pratten nodded, and Richard Cohen said “No”.
At lunchtime the Chairman announced that the beginning of the afternoon session (which he anticipated might last an hour or two) would be taken in private so that confidential information could be examined. He said that the Tribunal decision would be available probably in two or there weeks time.
So we shall have to be patient for some time longer before knowing the outcome. It appeared to me that a key consideration in the Tribunal decision might be when the IC barrister asked Mr Pratten how he would feel if Richard Cohen decided to pass Mr Pratten`s reports to other companies, and Mr Pratten said: “I don`t think I`ve got anything to fear, to be honest.” This was a direct contradiction of the claim by Richard Cohen that to publish the reports would prejudice the project.’