Village avoids court case in hall dispute

Hickling Barn: centre of dispute

Hickling Barn: centre of dispute - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2012

A Broadland village has stepped back from a costly court case concerning the long-running dispute over its hall.

But as residents in Hickling learned the news at the weekend, the two sides - the parish council and the hall charity trustees - were still disputing who was to blame for clocking up a likely combined six-figure total in legal fees.

At the heart of the dispute has been a sum of nearly £22,000 incurred in professional fees during the building of the hall, Hickling Barn, which opened over two years ago.

The trustees said that the parish council agreed to pay the fees at a time when most of them were also parish councillors; however, the new council administration, voted in at the May 2011 elections, insisted there was no record of any agreement.

The dispute escalated to the point where the trustees sued the parish council for the £22,000 and a further £89,000 the council had agreed to pay towards the project but decided, on legal advice, to withhold. Meanwhile, the council counter-sued for the return of about £200,000 already paid over to the charity.

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Villagers paid the price of the legal action last year when the parish precept for a band G property rose from £33 to £148.

Under the terms of the settlement, the trustees have dropped their claim for professional fees and agreed changes to the charity's constitution which will bring in elections by secret ballot and two parish council appointees; the parish council has agreed to release the £89,000. Both side will pay their own costs.

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Parish council chairman Sandra Clarke said the legal costs, £32,000 for the council and a trustees' total that had already reached £44,000 by the end of March last year, could have been avoided as the charity had now accepted an offer originally made by the parish council - and recorded in its minutes - before the involvement of solicitors.

However, trustees' spokesman Chris Watkins denied the council had made a previous offer and said they had dropped their professional fees claim to 'avoid the huge cost to the village of a court case'.

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