In an extreme example of a friendly society whose members ended up on anything but friendly terms, three of the country’s most senior judges have pleaded for an end to five years of bitter recrimination that drove a working men’s club to the brink of managerial paralysis.
The financially troubled Blakeborough Social & Sports Club, established under the Friendly Societies Act 1974 and based in West Yorkshire, had been riven by warring factions within its 600-strong membership ever since plans to sell its bowling green were first floated in 2008.
A group of bowling members bitterly opposed the move and the flow of accusations and counter-accusations at one point became so fierce that police became involved. Two court hearings failed to achieve a resolution that suited all sides and the dispute ultimately made its way to the Court of Appeal.
In allowing an appeal by the bowling members, the Court found that the club’s President, Treasurer and Committee had not been validly elected at an annual general meeting (AGM) in July 2011. Procedures followed during the meeting had been seriously flawed, not least because the club’s officers had purportedly been elected by a show of hands, rather than by a secret ballot as its rules required.
However, the Court described its ruling on that issue as ‘of academic interest only’ in that a fresh AGM had been held in March 2013 and there had been no challenge to its resolutions. Although the bowling members had established that their expulsion from the club had been unlawful, they were nevertheless ordered to pay the lion’s share of the action’s heavy legal costs.
A fresh AGM was due to be held shortly and Lord Justice Lewison noted, “I should stress that it will be of the utmost importance that the forthcoming AGM is conducted strictly in accordance with the rules and that the paper trail is scrupulously kept, otherwise this unhappy saga will have no end.”
The judge said that a November 2009 meeting at the club had become so ‘rowdy’ that it had to be abandoned. Bowling members had later ‘attempted what was, in effect, a palace revolution’ by purporting to convene a special general meeting in a bid to oust the club’s officials.
They had ‘also called in the police to investigate allegations of financial irregularities in the management of the club’. Those claims were investigated at length by the police but did not result in any prosecutions. Prompted by a judge, the club had held the July 2011 AGM, but Lord Justice Lewison observed, “One might have thought that, in this febrile atmosphere…care would be taken to ensure that the rules of the club were scrupulously complied with. Unfortunately, that did not happen.”