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Judge dismisses case brought over ownership of village hall, makes restraint order

A judge has dismissed a case brought over the ownership of a village hall as totally without merit and issued an order restraining one litigant from bringing further actions.

The lengthy dispute concerned the village hall in Denchworth, Oxfordshire, which has been the subject of two refusals of judicial review and one rejection by the Court of Appeal.

In Panton & Anor v Vale of White Horse District Council & Anor [2020] EWHC 167 Ashley Greenbank, sitting as a deputy judge of the High Court, ruled: “In my view, the claim was totally without merit and I will certify the order accordingly.”

He said the action was an abuse of process and ordered litigant Bernard Panton not to issue claims or make applications in the courts related to these proceedings for two years without first obtaining permission.

No restraint was placed on the other litigant Norman Wilkins, as Mr Greenbank concluded it was unlikely he would start proceedings on his own initiative.

Mr Panton and Mr Wilkins are respectively the former treasurer and former chairman of the Denchworth Parish Meeting.

The hall was built and donated to the parish in the 1930s, and in 1991 the parish meeting applied for first registration of the hall on the basis of adverse possession, which was accepted.

In 2001, the hall’s management committee applied for charitable status as the Denchworth Village Hall Fund of which four people became its holding trustees. Two years later the parish trustees transferred the legal title to the hall to the holding trustees.

Mr Panton was elected treasurer and Mr Wilkins chairman of the parish meeting in 2013 and the two later started litigation claiming that Margaret Reed, the ‘proper officer’ of Vale of White Horse District Council breached section 1 of the Trustee Act 2000 by knowingly and falsely having denied that the parish trustees held the hall on trust for the parish meeting and having instead asserted that the hall was held for the Denchworth Village Hall Fund.

This claim was struck out by the High Court in November 2018 because there were no reasonable grounds for bringing the claim. Floyd J refused to allow the case to go to the Court of Appeal.

Mr Panton and Mr Wilkins then began a fresh action claiming that Ms Reed acted ultra vires causing loss of £11,538 to the two men, mainly in legal costs.

Mr Greenbank said the action was “in my view…an abuse of process. The appropriate means to challenge those decisions was by appeal. The claimants had their opportunity to appeal, but, in each case, permission was refused.”

Mark Smulian

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