A businessman has lost a Court of Appeal attempt to avoid personal liability for hundreds of thousands of pounds owed to almost 30 former employees of a West Country newspaper series that closed in 2018.
Duncan Williams (pictured) bought Sunday Independent Ltd and its Dorset-based View From series of seven newspapers for £1 in January 2018, two weeks after the titles closed down, saying he planned to relaunch them.
Later that year Williams was ruled personally liable for money owed former members of staff, including claims of unfair dismissal and statutory redundancy payment.
He had argued against the ruling, saying he believed he had only acquired the intellectual property rights, such as the brand names, when he bought the newspapers and was not aware of outstanding staff payments.
But a court order made by Lord Justice Lewison of the Court of Appeal this month said the Williams’ case was struck out on “purely procedural grounds”, adding that it had “no real prospect of success”.
Williams’ initial appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which ruled against him last year, was not filed within the appropriate period. He subsequently did not apply for or justify why he needed a time extension, the court order said.
Former View From deputy editor James Coles, who acted as the lead claimant for the 27 ex-staffers involved in the claim, said the group were forced to seek statutory amounts from the Government’s Insolvency Service while the appeal process was ongoing.
He said only ten had been deemed eligible for statutory redundancy pay, and that all of the former staff members are still awaiting the money granted to them by the Employment Tribunal.
Coles said: “It’s hard to believe it’s been more than two years since the demise of the View From.
“But what I really can’t get my head round is how Duncan Williams is still thumbing his nose at us – and last year’s tribunal decision.
“If he can’t pay, why doesn’t he do the honourable thing and declare himself bankrupt?
“At least then, we could go to the government and claim the statutory monies awarded to us by the tribunal.”
Coles added that the group would “make Williams bankrupt ourselves if he refuses to do the decent thing”.
Williams told Press Gazette last year he does not have the six-figure sum he is liable for, and that he was expecting to undergo an examination of his assets by the courts.
He said today that he will place Sunday Independent Ltd into administration if the Insolvency Service confirms he must shoulder the debts to the ex-employees himself as its individual director.
Williams added: “It has been a long and protracted case and I have always had greatest sympathy for the employees of the Sunday Independent, of which of course I am one.
“Like one of the claimants, I am also a trade union member and the original endeavour was, as we all know, a genuine attempt to introduce crowdfunding as a means to have regional newspapers part-owned by their own journalists and communities.
“Nothing has shaken my core faith in the importance of regional media – of which there is always a huge appetite.”
Williams said he hoped a buyer for Etch Creative, a digital publishing subsidiary of Sunday Independent Ltd, would be sought during the administration process.
Former View From owner Peter Masters has said the decision to close the newspapers was made because of “falling revenues” and that Williams bought the company as a going concern.