Roman Catholic nuns are facing allegations that they fraudulently profited by up to £31m from a residential development, after the High Court yesterday granted permission for an action against them to proceed.
Striking out an application for summary judgment, the court ruled that the Parish Council of Chalfont St Peter could continue with its claim against the Holy Cross Sisters Trustees.
The council’s claim stems from a decision by Chiltern District Council in 2010 to grant the trustees, referred to in the judgment as ‘the Order’, planning consent allowing residential development of the former site of the Holy Cross Convent School.
The parish council opposed planning permission for the development in favour of a rival plan, which involved relocating the existing Chalfont St Peter Church of England school to the site.
The original decision to grant the Order planning permission was challenged by the council through a series of applications and appeals to the High Court which were ultimately unsuccessful.
In the latest challenge, the parish council alleges that the Order fraudulently conspired to misrepresent historic use of the school playing fields during the course of the planning application. The council contends that planning consent meant the Order was able to sell the site to developers for more than £31m.
The misrepresentations focus on two areas of land identified in the planning dispute, referred to as areas ‘A’ and ‘B’.
The Order said area ‘B’ had been used as a playing field but that area ‘A’ was only an informal playing field.
It is alleged the order made this claim because it assumed that, had Area A also been used as a playing field, planning application would have been refused under the local authority’s policy on loss of sports facilities.
‘The Order therefore made, or allowed to be made on its behalf, representations which they knew to be false. They knew them to be false because the actual use of Area A was a matter of “common knowledge among the Sisters and staff at the school”,’ the court said, summarising the council’s allegations.
Master Davison of the Queen’s Bench Division, wrote: ‘I cannot say that the parish council has “no real prospect” of succeeding on this issue.’
There is no suggestion that the developers were aware of the misrepresentations.
The parish council is represented by Simons Muirhead & Burton. The Order is represented by Farrer & Co.
A spokesperson for the Trustees of the Holy Cross Sisters said: ’We are disappointed that the court did not accept that the claim was an abuse of process or that summary judgment should be granted. Nevertheless, we continue to believe that the parish council’s claims are entirely without merit. The parish council’s allegations are rejected in full and we will now proceed to defend the claim robustly.’
NOTE: On 7 May 2019, the High Court gave unequivocal judgment in favour of the Sisters and dismissed all of the Parish Council’s claims. The Sisters were found entirely innocent of any fraud or wrongdoing and the Parish Council was ordered to pay their legal costs. See report here