In late 2012 Bolton News reporter Dale Haslam submitted a Freedom of Information request to ask if any councillors had failed to pay their council tax on time. The answer revealed that two unnamed councillors missed payments and only settled up after they were threatened with court action. There then followed a three-year legal battle to name them publicly. Here Dale explains the background to the saga.

MANY visitors call into the Bolton News office in any given week, but one in particular raised more than the odd eyebrow.

Standing at the counter of our Wellsprings office in August 2014 was Bradshaw Conservative councillor Mudasir Dean, accompanied by his group leader, Cllr David Greenhalgh — and they both had something to say.

It turned out that Cllr Dean had been so late paying his council tax for two consecutive years that the authority he represents — Bolton Council — summonsed him to court.

Tory leader Cllr Greenhalgh explained that The Bolton News' ongoing investigation into the matter had angered his fellow Conservatives. They, understandably, felt constituents would be suspicious of them until someone owned up.

But Cllr Dean’s admission — and the subsequent police investigation which cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing — was not the end of the story.

The whole saga had begun in late 2012 when, acting partly on curiosity and partly on a hunch, I submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the council asking a series of questions about council tax.

The local authority gave details of five councillors who were late with payments.

Three settled up after receiving a standard reminder letter. But the pattern of non-payment was much more serious in the other two cases.

Both had been paying late for two consecutive years — and had only settled their bill after being threatened with court action.

Many observers claimed that councillors should lead by example and pay their council tax on time.

They are the people who decide what the council tax rates are for everyone in Bolton each February.

Legally, any councillor who votes on what the council tax rates should be — while behind with their own payments and not getting assistance — is breaking the law. They could be fined up to £1,000 at a magistrates’ court.

We asked the council to name the two councillors, but they refused, claiming the pair were entitled to privacy under the terms of FOI law.

The Bolton News appealed against the decision but another council boss upheld the decision.

Not satisfied, we took the matter to the independent Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in June 2013.

Seven months on, the ICO concluded the council was right to withhold the names of the two councillors.

For a while, it seemed that was the end of the matter. However, the saga then took a twist, when the First Tier Tribunal (FTT), which monitors the ICO’s decisions, noticed something was not right.

After The Bolton News asked for the FTT to look into the case, its officers pointed out that council tax non-payment cases are dealt with in a civil court.

That contradicted one of the council’s early arguments for keeping their names a secret on the grounds that their cases had ended up in a criminal court.

However, a three-person FTT panel unanimously decided there were other reasons for the names to remain private.

In July 2014, the panel wrote: “We have seen and considered the personal circumstances and have no doubt that they placed the individuals in a position where they could significantly and legitimately have expected not to be named.”

Naming them, it said “could potentially cause unnecessary and unjustified damage and distress to the individuals”.

The decision did not matter as far as the unnamed Conservative was concerned, as Cllr Dean subsequently admitted it was him a month later.

However, the identity of the other councillor, who represents Labour, remained private.

The FTT’s decision drew national attention after observers picked up that the council was arguing that naming the councillor could infringe on their human rights.

That caught the eye of London-based media law firm Wiggin, which offered to take up the case 'pro bono' on behalf of The Bolton News.

Wiggin persuaded the Upper Tier Tribunal (UTT) to rule on the case and the judge, Kate Marcus QC, held the first of two court hearings at Field House in Central London last October.

Her first challenge was to consider whether it was reasonable for the council to provide The Bolton News with ‘a gist’ of the situation the councillor was in at the time they missed the council tax payment dates, to demonstrate that anonymity is justified.

After listening to three hours of evidence from the council, the ICO and its legal advisors, Judge Marcus decided that revealing that information would risk identifying them.

In January, the UTT met again at Field House in London to hear final submissions from both The Bolton News and the council.

During the three-hour hearing, The Bolton News's legal representative Anya Proops, argued that, because the councillor could have hypothetically been unable to vote on the council's budget, voters will never know if that councillor performed their duties unless they are named.

She added that an argument that the information was purely private was "completely absurd".

Ms Proops said that the MPs' expenses scandal had reminded public servants that they are operating under scrutiny and there was an even more compelling argument for removing anonymity in this case.

She said taxpayers might interpret the councillor as saying 'do as I say, not as I do' if they are deciding what council tax people should pay and not paying it themselves.

Judge Kate Markus QC told the court she would make her decision in due course.

It was the end of the legal proceedings. All we could do at that point was wait.

Throughout the process, most of the organisations involved have welcomed the fact that the naming question has been asked, fully examined and answered in accordance with the law.

That in itself should serve to demonstrate to readers that, while some might not agree with the outcome, it was at least arrived at in the correct manner.