No decision is expected this week in the attempt by former Saddleworth MP Phil Woolas to overturn the decision to throw him out of parliament. That means we’re now almost certainly going to have to wait until the new year for any by-election.
Two judges sitting in Uppermill ruled earlier this month that Mr Woolas had broken the law by deliberately making false statements about his Liberal Democrat opponent Elwyn Watkins during the general election campaign. They decided to strip him of his victory, and ban him from holding public office for three years. He was later also suspended by the Labour Party.
His lawyers have been seeking a judicial review of the ruling. Their arguments were heard by three judges last week, but according to the High Court and the BBC they’re not yet ready to give a decision.
There are two elements to what the judges are considering. First, they must work out whether they have the right to hear a judicial review at all. If they decide that they do, they’ll then tell us whether they agree with Mr Woolas that the judges at the Uppermill hearing were wrong. Both decisions are due to be delivered at the same time, because the legal process is being fast-tracked so we’re not left without an MP for too long.
During a day and a half of evidence last week, lawyers for Mr Woolas argued the original judges were wrong because the law in question has been left outdated by the modern European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the right to free speech. Lawyers for Mr Watkins have said the right to free speech doesn’t cover statements “where that freedom is abused… on the basis of falsehoods.”
If Mr Woolas fails in his legal bid, a by-election would be held. It’s convention for elections to be held on Thursdays, and with 23 December considered too close to Christmas, the last possible date for a by-election this year would be 16 December. There has to be three weeks between a by-election being called and polling day, so unless we get an outcome by this Thursday, we’ll have to wait until next year.
The delay will be particularly disappointing for the Lib Dems, who are already virtually in campaign mode ahead of the expected vote. Yesterday, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne became the second senior party figure to visit Saddleworth in less than a week, and you can read his interview with Saddleworth News here.
Even though most legal observers expect Mr Woolas to lose, there’s always the possibility he might win. There’s also the chance that even if he loses he could try to raise the money to take his case further, perhaps to the Court of Appeal or beyond. Either eventuality would leave Saddleworth facing yet more political uncertainty.
You can read the BBC’s article about this story here.
The full background to the case from Saddleworth News is available here.