Judge criticises council’s bid to take both sides in playing fields battle

COTHAM School has vowed to fight on despite criticism over mounting legal costs in its battle with local residents over Stoke Lodge playing fields.

The High Court heard that a one-day hearing about the site, which has been designated a village green,  in January had cost the school £23,500 in legal fees.

Campaigners We Love Stoke Lodge said that was equivalent to the annual wage of a teaching assistant – and called on the school to drop the legal challenge and work with local people.

Henry Michallat, a Bristol City Councillor for Stoke Bishop, said it was time for the state-funded academy to drop its “costly and senseless” legal challenge. 

Cllr Michallat said: “I really hope that Cotham School thinks carefully about spending yet more education funding on this unnecessary litigation. 

“The village green does not stop Cotham School using the playing fields. Other schools and clubs play sport without the need for a fence.”

But in a statement Cotham School said it would appeal against the court ruling in January that its legal costs should not be capped if it loses its legal fight to have the Town or Village Green (TVG)  status overturned.

It said it was looking at “all available avenues to protect these school premises, our playing fields”. The school leases the land from Bristol City Council, although while the legal row is going on it has moved its games lessons to Golden Hill. 

Cotham School is mounting a legal challenge to a decision in August last year by BCC’s Public Rights of Way committee to grant Stoke Lodge playing fields Town or Village Green (TVG) status.  That decision followed years of disagreement between the and WLSL. 

The school fenced the land, saying it was necessary to allow it to safely hold PE lessons and sports – but locals said that was a restriction on many years of public use. 

At the Bristol High Court hearing in January the school told HHJ Paul Matthews it  could not afford more than £70,000 in costs if it lost, and so wanted him to limit their costs.  He rejected that request.

Afterwards in a statement the school said: “It’s very disappointing that as a state school, Cotham School, has not received any cost protection through the courts to protect our premises, Cotham School Playing Fields in the ongoing legal proceedings.”

A spokesperson for WLSL said the hearing had cost their group £25,000 in legal fees.

They said: “Now there are two big questions – how much will Cotham School have to pay towards our costs of that hearing, and what will they do next?”

“The court judgement said the school’s business manager had told the court they could not afford to spend more than £70,000 on the legal case.

“Most of that £70k has gone, in their own costs and the amount they will have to pay towards ours.  So at what point will the governors say ‘enough is enough’?

“There is no need to be spending this money at all, because as we know, as they know, as Ofsted and the Department for Education agree – they can come back and do PE on Stoke Lodge Village Green any time they want.”

The judge also rejected Bristol City Council’s application to present two opposite arguments in court – both defending its own Rights of Way Committee decision to award TVG status, AND as landlords who rent the land to Cotham School, backing the school’s opposition to the TVG.

In January BCC told the Voice it wanted the school and local people to reach a mutually agreeable solution.  The council hoped asking a court to make a final decision on the TVG status would in the long run reduce costs and avoid protracted court cases. 

But in his ruling HHJ Matthews criticised BCC as “rather curious” for trying to take both sides in the dispute.

He ruled that BCC’s opposing views had to “sail under one flag” – and the council would participate in the case represented by just one legal team and funded by one set of costs.