Commuters start legal proceedings over Southern Rail crisis

A passenger demo at Brighton station SUS-160725-134444001
A passenger demo at Brighton station SUS-160725-134444001

A commuter group that raised £26,000 for a judicial review of the Southern Rail crisis has begun court proceedings against the government.

The Association of British Commuters (ABC) was set up as a Facebook group by frustrated passengers, who had endured disruption on the rails since at least April - when the industrial dispute over driver-only operation began.

It set up a crowdfunding page, and raised the cash for legal action challenging the Department for Transport’s (DfT) handling of the crisis.

After raising £26,000 needed in September, the group hired lawyers: barrister Jamas Hodivala of 2 Bedford Row and solicitor Matthew Garbutt and his team at Devonshires Solicitors LLP.

A statement from the Brighton-based ABC group said: “We are delighted to announce that we have now applied to court for a judicial review of the DfT’s handling of the Southern Rail management contract.

“Our detailed grounds, lodged at court today are the result of five months’ hard work and the extensive research of dozens of volunteers who have supported the campaign by contributing their time and professional skills. Our donors, volunteers and supporters are the people who have been hit the hardest by the Southern Rail crisis, and they deserve to play a part in finally bringing the government to account.

“We began this process back in September, at a time when we felt we’d already reached our last resort. That it has got so much worse, and the DfT have still not acted, now beggars belief. Commuters have long since passed the point of exhaustion, and it is a matter of shame on the DfT that we have had to go to such great lengths to demand action be taken.”

The commuter group’s court papers being lodged at court this morning (February 1) address what it claims is ‘the DfT’s ongoing failure to hold Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) to account’ for the long-term breakdown of service on Southern Rail.

The grounds it gives are as follows:

(1) Delay – we believe the Secretary of State has acted unlawfully by failing to determine and announce within a reasonable time whether GTR is in breach of its franchise obligations; and

(2) Discrimination – we believe that the Secretary of State has failed to comply with his duties under the Equality Act 2010 and has as a result caused indirect discrimination to passengers with disabilities.

An ABC spokesperson said: “ABC is seeking declaratory relief – i.e. a court finding that the Secretary of State has acted or is acting unlawfully.”

“Both the Southern Rail management contract and remedial plan remain publicly available only in redacted form and, without transparency, there is no way to clarify the true causes of this unprecedented rail crisis.”

ABC believes the court will issue the application within five to ten days. It will then be served on the Secretary of State who will have the opportunity to respond by filing Summary Grounds of Resistance within a further 21 days. The court will then consider, usually without a hearing in the first instance, whether to grant leave (permission to proceed to court). If leave is granted, ABC is set to launch a second crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to take the case through to its conclusion.

Lianna Etkind, public transport campaigner at Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Today is a step forward for passenger power. It is absolutely right that the government is held to account for the failings of the Southern franchise, which has made people’s lives a misery. Long before any industrial dispute, Southern passengers had to rely on a train service plagued by delays and disruptions, under a management contract with no financial penalties for poor performance.

“Fundamentally, the running of a train service is down to the contract between government and train operator, so the government’s role in setting and enforcing the standards in the contract with Govia must be properly scrutinised. For far too long, passengers’ voices have been ignored in the tussle between Southern Rail and the unions. We need to ensure that in the future, passenger representation is written into this franchise, and indeed into all rail franchises, so that those who have to use the trains day in, day out, have their voices heard.”

The Department for Transport has been approached for comment.