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Council agrees to pay £4m damages and costs to publican on rare abuse of process grounds after 20-year legal fight

North Northamptonshire Council has agreed to pay "substantial damages" to a publican who alleged abuse of process in a food safety case brought against him by a predecessor authority more than 20 years ago. 

The case, which Dr Geoffrey Monks' legal team said was pursued on grounds that were last successfully argued in 1861, was launched two years ago against the now-disbanded East Northamptonshire Council.

North Northamptonshire took over the operations and liabilities of East Northamptonshire after local government reorganisation in April 2021.

East Northamptonshire had prosecuted Dr Monks in 1999 in relation to alleged food safety offences at the Snooty Fox Public House in Lowick.

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Dr Monks was convicted in relation to the Snooty Fox in 2000 and ordered to pay a fine of £13,500 and costs of £8,300. In 2003, when he was unable to pay the fine, Dr Monks was sent to a category A prison.

His case against the council included a number of allegations, including that it failed to follow its own detailed food safety enforcement and prosecution policy, which was denied by the council in its defence.

Dr Monks alleged that the council had conducted around 5,000 food safety inspections of premises that prepared food for public consumption in the eight years or so previous to turning its attention to him, which resulted in just two prosecutions, and that between around 1995 and 1998 not a single person in the council’s area was charged with a food safety offence. The council admitted both of these allegations.

Dr Monks was advised on the case by a legal team including Geraint Thomas and Rebekah Parker from the solicitors firm Laytons ETL Global and 4 New Square’s Paul Mitchell QC.

There have only been two successful civil actions brought to recover damages for the tort of abuse of process in English legal history. The last such case was brought in 1861.

Unlike the prior cases, in Dr Monks’ case, the allegation of abuse of process did not relate to a case of extortion but one either of vendetta or of capricious indifference to the council’s own policy governing when it was to prosecute Food Safety Act offences.

At the same time the council was prosecuting Dr Monks for alleged infractions at the Snooty Fox, East Northamptonshire also prosecuted him for food safety offences at his two other pubs.

He was initially convicted in relation to one of the pubs but, in 2003, appealed successfully against that conviction. The prosecution relating to the second pub was then stayed, on the grounds that both prosecutions were abuses of process.

As a result of the prosecutions, Dr Monks was forced to sell all three pubs at a loss, and also lost his home. He suffered a heart attack while in prison and has experienced serious health issues ever since.

Dr Monks could not afford to pursue a claim against the council until he secured funding from Acasta Europe in 2019, enabling him to commence action in the High Court.

In addition to paying damages, North Northamptonshire will also make an apology for its predecessor’s actions in open court, admitting abuse of process.

Geraint Thomas, partner and head of the disputes team at Laytons ETL Global who assisted Dr Monks, said: “This was, thankfully, a highly unusual case which, of course, settled. The vindication and compensation achieved by our client was, nonetheless, based on asserting a cause of action that has not successfully been sued upon since Charles Dickens’s lifetime.

“This is also the first time in English legal history that abuse of process has been admitted in a case that does not involve extortion. I hope it will give other non-CPS prosecuting authorities pause for reflection before embarking on disproportionate actions that can have a devastating impact on the members of the public whom they target.”

Cllr Jason Smithers, Leader of North Northamptonshire Council, said: “East Northamptonshire Council’s decision to prosecute Dr Monks in relation to the Snooty Fox was an abuse of process and should never have occurred.

“It is accepted that East Northamptonshire Council’s actions caused serious personal injury, loss, and damage to him over a period of more than 20 years, and I sincerely apologise for those actions."

Cllr Smithers added: “I hope that Dr Monks is able to have his reputation restored and that the substantial damages which the council has agreed to pay to him go some way towards assisting him to move forward with his life.”

The council has agreed to a settlement figure of £4m which includes payment of all legal costs, legal costs funding and after the event insurance associated with the claim.

Adam Carey

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