SENIOR Liberal Democrats have given their support to a party leader who was kicked off a council for not attending meetings.

Legal advice is being sought over the manner in which Martin Swainston, the leader of the Lib Dem group on Darlington Borough Council, was dismissed last week after not attending a meeting for more than six months.

Mr Swainston has claimed that he was caring for his wife who was seriously ill and gave his reasons and apologies to council officers.

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However, the authority’s leader has said Mr Swainston did not follow the proper procedure for exempting himself from meetings and the decision cannot be reversed.

Malcolm Dunstone, chairman of the Darlington Liberal Democrat executive committee, said: "I think the council has jumped the gun.

"Martin has had a very difficult time. He has talked to one of the officers in confidence about the exact details of his personal problems.

"He has been carrying out case work in his ward for the entire time - only this week, he has held a meeting regarding problems residents in Hurworth have been having.

"This whole experience has been very traumatic for him and his wife.

"It would be far better for everyone if they could retract the decision and allow him back on the council.

"I do hope the need for a by-election can be avoided and this situation can be quickly resolved."

Peter Freitag, a veteran party member who has held a number of senior roles in regional Liberal Democrat party organisations, said he would be raising the matter with the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors.

He also plans to discuss it with Lib Dem peer, Lord Carlile, who is a practicing barrister.

Mr Freitag said: “I think this is illegal and indefensible.”

However, the council leader Bill Dixon said: "How do you not turn up to a meeting for six months, put apologies in, and think that is sufficient?

"He's never shared with any of the officers the reasons for his non-attendance, so far as I'm aware.

"If there is a valid reason for non-attendance, no member of any political party has ever been refused an extension.

"We have never been unsympathetic. It is a very simple, straight forward procedure.”

He said the decision could not be appealed.”

He added: "If someone doesn't attend and doesn't ask for dispensation, we have no alternative.

"It is his own fault. Six months is a long time not to attend a single council meeting.

"If people are taking their allowances and not doing their job, it puts the rest of us in a difficult position.

"While most members work very hard for what they get, some don't deliver."