Sharon Shoesmith is free to appeal her failed attempt to overturn her sacking at the height of the Baby Peter affair after a judge issued a scathing criticism of the conduct of former children's secretary Ed Balls, throwing out all but a fraction of his claims for legal costs. In April, Mr Justice Foskett rejected Shoesmith's claim for a judicial review of her dismissal by Balls and subsequent sacking by Haringey council after an Ofsted report appeared to highlight leadership failings in the child protection department which she headed.
However, in a ruling published yesterday, he declared that while he stood by his original judgment, it was clear Shoesmith had not "lost" the case in the formal sense, and given the wider public interest issues that emerged during the court hearings, the former Haringey children's services director should be given permission to appeal. "It is by no means fanciful that the Court of Appeal may differ from my view," he says. The judge shredded claims made by the secretary of state, Haringey and Ofsted for legal costs totalling just under £350,000 against Shoesmith, making it clear that he had been unhappy at the way all three defendants had handled the case. Shoesmith, who faced financial ruin had the full costs been awarded against her, now faces a net bill of just £15,000. She is considering whether to take her case to the court of appeal.
Lawyers acting for the secretary of state asked the judge to award their costs of £140,000 against Shoesmith. But he slashed this to £25,000, saying the abrasive manner in which Balls had removed Shoesmith in December 2008 – he announced her removal at a televised press conference at which he encouraged Haringey to sack her without compensation – "contributed to the impetus" for her subsequent application for judicial review. Foskett writes: "When someone perceives that he or she has been treated unfairly by those in power, so much the greater is the desire for redress and vindication ... It seems to me wholly unreal for me to ignore that kind of factor in the overall analysis of what drove the need for this litigation."
The judge criticises Haringey council for the way it sacked Shoesmith a week after her removal by Balls. Although in April he said the council's actions were properly the remit of an employment tribunal, he made clear in yesterday's judgement that in working out costs he would take into account that Haringey's procedures did not give "the appearance of fairness." Haringey had asked the judge to award £90,000 costs against Shoesmith, but Foskett ordered the council to pay Shoesmith £10,000. He writes: "If one has to talk in terms of 'wins' or 'losses', the claimant [Shoesmith] 'won' on this issue and Haringey 'lost' ... I see no reasn whey the claimant should not receive something to recompense her for, in effect, winning on the issue."
Foskett criticised Ofsted for failing to honour its duty of candour to the court – at the 11th hour of the original judicial review hearing it uncovered thousands of pages of documents relating to the case, causing it to be substantially delayed – and threw out its claim for £115,000 costs against Shoesmith. The case had highlighted important issues of policy, notably the "difficult" legal powers which enable a secretary of state to step in and remove a local authority employee regardless of his or her contract with their employer, says the judge. He adds: "The financial burden of bringing issues such as this into relief should not, in my view, be shouldered by one individual."
All three defendants are criticised by Foskett for delaying or failing to supply important documentation to the court. "Each of the defendants in this case is a public body with the legal and other resources available to ensure that this is achieved. To the extent that it was not achieved in each of their cases is something that it would be wholly wrong for me to ignore."