MIDDLEWICH Town Council believes the organisation running the town’s cemetery is doing so without legal authority.

Lisa Benskin, town clerk, told councillors last week that she had checked 76,000 emails and hundreds of council minutes without being able to find a document proving any legal basis for Middlewich Cemetery Board to operate as an independent body.

Members agreed that the council should write to the Middlewich Cemetery Board, asking it to hand control over to the council.

Ms Benskin launched an investigation into the legal status of the cemetery last year, and discussed it with the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM) and the National Association of Local Councils (NALC).

Having been unable to find a constitution proving the board can run independently, she told councillors she had come to the ‘unavoidable conclusion’ it is operating ‘beyond its legal power and without any authority’.

Ms Benskin said: “The chief executive officer of the ICCM, with whom I have been communicating, has noted that they have never come across a situation such as this before.

Lisa Benskin

Lisa Benskin

“Furthermore, the statement from NALC states that ‘a joint burial committee cannot stand by itself as a function. The burial authority must be performed as a council’.

“That to me is clear as to the legal position.”

Ms Benskin’s report says that Middlewich Town Council became the burial authority for the town on April 1, 1974, under the Local Government Act – while a new portion of land to extend the cemetery was bought by the council in August 1982.

The report says ‘it is quite clear’ that the Department of Communities and Local Government considers the cemetery board not to be constituted separately to the town council.

It explains that this was understood to be the case until May 2016, when a statement was released by a solicitor acting on behalf of the board, which said: “In order to avoid further confusion, the board wishes to make it quite clear that it is a separately constituted and independent body from Middlewich Town Council.

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“Although some members of the town council are also members of the board, those council members who are not members of the board are not concerned with or have any role in connection with the governance of the board.”

Ms Benskin’s report says the solicitor involved had confirmed the statement in 2016 was ‘based on conversations with the former town clerk [Jonathan Williams] and no actual documentary evidence’.

The report also states Simon McGrory, chairman of the cemetery board, told Ms Benskin he had not seen a copy of a constitution that would prove the legal grounds for the board to run independently of Middlewich Town Council.

And an email from Mr Williams to Cllr Mike Hunter and Cllr Jonathan Parry in July 2019 said the former clerk had not seen the constitution either, while some financial accounts were dealt with alongside the town council’s.

Following last week’s meeting, chairman Cllr Hunter said: “My thoughts are with those who have buried relatives in recent years, and whose grief will not have been eased by this needless wrangling.

Cllr Mike Hunter

Cllr Mike Hunter

“I hope that residents will be uppermost in the minds of the burial board’s members when they decide if they will now work with us on a smooth and speedy transition.

“All councillors hope that there will be no need for court action, it will simply delay the inevitable and will only result in the whole thing being dragged out unnecessarily.

“This isn’t just a case of who owns the land or who is in charge – if the joint burial board is not legally constituted then it does not have the authority to bury people. This will be of massive concern to Middlewich residents who have relatives recently buried.”

Mr McGrory told the Guardian the board would cooperate with the town council to find a resolution, but insisted Ms Benskin’s report ‘makes many assumptions’.

He said: “The cemetery board has continued to operate to provide a service for the residents of the area, has had to deal with not only the unprecedented global virus pandemic, but also the death of two major stalwart influences to the cemetery.

Simon McGrory, Middlewich Cemetery Board chairman

Simon McGrory, Middlewich Cemetery Board chairman

“With their loss went almost 70 years of knowledge and experience.

“What we do know is that the report makes many assumptions and is not an accurate reflection of the operation of the cemetery, past or present.

“As we have always said, we will look to resolve the situation, not by a public confrontation but by common sense discussion and agreement.”