The trustees of the Garden Bridge Trust may have broken charity law in their management of the failed project, a legal expert has said.
The Architects’ Journal reported that in the opinion of Jason Coppel QC, an expert in public and procurement law, the trustees, who include Joanna Lumley, had breached their legal duties to act with reasonable skill and care.
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In an 11-page legal opinion that the Architects’ Journal said it had seen, Mr Coppel said it was ‘likely’ that the trustees breached these duties ‘in particular in relation to the conclusion of the construction contract with Bouygues’.
Although trustees of a charity can become personally liable, Mr Coppel argued that legal action against the trustees of the Garden Bridge Trust could be problematic, partly because its beneficiaries were identified as ‘members of the public at large’.
‘The principal difficulty is that any potential claimant would not have suffered any loss as a result of the trustees’ actions,’ he wrote.
The publication said that the party who commissioned Mr Coppel's opinion, who wants to remain anonymous, had asked him to advise on a potential claim against the trustees following the cancellation of the project last year. It said this had resulted in the loss of an estimated £46m of public money.
Mr Coppel noted that while a ‘substantial proportion’ of the criticism directed against the Garden Bridge concerned Transport for London’s procurement of Heatherwick Studio and Arup, ‘there were […] a number of matters which have been laid at the door of the trust, in particular the decision to enter into a construction contract with the Bouygues-TP Cimolai joint venture […] at a time when the trust had neither secured all of the necessary funding for the project nor the necessary rights to use the land which would be required for the project'.
He cited a report last year by Dame Margaret Hodge – which also criticised the signing of the construction contract – and said he was unconvinced by a report on the Trust published by the Charity Commission last year, which largely backed the trustees’ actions.
‘Like [Hodge], I do not regard the conclusions of the Commission as providing a sufficient answer to an allegation of breach of the equitable duty of care, not least in the light of events which subsequently ensued,’ the Architects' Journal reported Mr Coppel as writing.