A TINY village hall in Oxfordshire found itself entrenched in an unprecedented legal case that escalated all the way to the High Court in Westminster.
The lengthy dispute over the ownership of the hall in Denchworth started when its former treasurer Bernard Panton and the former chairman of the parish meeting Norman Wilkins raised concerns about parish trustees.
The two men alleged that the hall’s ownership was not secure in the trustees’ hands and said they feared that the building was at risk of being sold off in the future.
This belief resulted in three separate claims made between 2016 and 2019 against the Denchworth Parish Trustees relating to the ownership of the village hall, which were all struck out.
The two men had also accused Margaret Reed – the head of legal at Vale of White Horse District Council – of making false submissions to the court when testifying.
They said that Mrs Reed and the parish trustees a) denied that the trustees held the hall on trust for the parish meeting, and b) stated that the hall was held for the Denchworth Village Hall Fund – both statements which Mr Panton disagreed with.
Neither he nor Mr Wilkins were able to provide any evidence that Mrs Reed was making false submissions, and the court dismissed their claim.
But the tenacious villagers did not take ‘no’ for an answer.
Their efforts continued when they made a further claim that Mrs Reed had cost them the sum of £11, 538 – the costs that they were ordered to pay for court fees after the earlier proceedings.
Their appeal was escalated to the High Court of Justice where, at a hearing in January, Ashley Greenbank – sitting as a deputy judge of the High Court – struck out their claim.
The judge also banned Mr Panton from bringing new legal action about Denchworth Village Hall.
He ruled: “In my view, the claim was totally without merit and I will certify the order accordingly.”
Deputy Judge Greenbank added that the action was an abuse of process and ordered Mr Panton not to issue claims or make applications in the courts related to these proceedings for two years without first obtaining permissions.
He concluded that it was appropriate to make an ECRO – an Extended Civil Restraint Order – for the full two-year period as Mr Panton had embarked on a ‘crusade’ against the council and Mrs Reed.
The Deputy Judge said it involved ‘repeated allegations of malfeasance or misconduct’.
Accordingly, he argued that the ‘the risk that Mr Panton may bring further claims without merit in the courts is high’.
In a letter sent to parish members, chairman of Denchworth Parish Richard Starkey acknowledged that the case has been a ‘source of division and extreme upset’ to the parish and some residents of the small village.
The hall was built and donated to the parish in the 1930s.
In 2001 the hall’s management committee applied for charitable status as the Denchworth Village Hall Fund of which four people became its holding trustees.