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Professor Sir John Bell’s role in the awarding of lucrative contracts without competition to Abingdon Health was significant. He carried out that role, involving the expenditure of large sums of public money, using only his Oxford University email account and personal mobile phone. It was vital, and correct, that the relevant documents from his emails and phone be disclosed.
Professor Bell – and his employer, the University of Oxford – have for months refused to consent. So we made a ‘disclosure’ application to compel them. And at 3.40pm on Wednesday, shortly before a two-hour High Court hearing to deal with the impasse on Thursday, they conceded.
But the concession came with a price tag.
Professor Bell and the University of Oxford insisted we should pay the £140,000 they had spent resisting our application.
That’s right: they spent £140,000 resisting an application for disclosure, which they then went on to concede on the eve of the hearing. And their position was – albeit that it had softened by the time of the hearing – that we should pick up their £140,000 tab.
To provide some context, in something like 98% of judicial review cases, Government’s legal costs of the whole case amount to less than £100k. Almost £140,000 for a short interim hearing estimated (by the lawyers in question) to last two hours is truly shocking.
It is deeply unedifying to watch the University of Oxford, a charity, spending such vast sums on expensive City lawyers. Is this really the best use of their funds?
And it is surprising that the University should spend such a grossly disproportionate sum on a two hour application. Perhaps to them £140,000 is irrelevant – but it left us feeling rather bullied.
We will hear next week, the judge has told us, who will meet these costs.
Public money should not be spent via private communication channels that cannot be scrutinised. And small not-for-profits acting in the public interest should not feel themselves bullied into submission.
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