We still don’t know whether Phil Woolas has been successful in winning his court bid against the decision to throw him out of parliament. Three judges hearing his application for a judicial review in central London have today reserved their judgement, following a day and a half of legal argument.
If the former Saddleworth MP loses his legal battle, it’s expected a by-election would be called. It’s thought the judges are unlikely to give us a decision before next week, despite the fact the legal process is being fast-tracked so our area won’t be left without an MP for too long.
The problem is that there has to be a minimum of 15 working days between a by-election being formally announced in the House of Commons, and polling day. With the convention that elections are held on Thursdays, the last likely date before Christmas would be 16 December. For a by-election to be held then, the so-called writ of election would have to be moved at Westminster by a week tomorrow at the latest.
It’s theoretically possible a by-election could take place on 23 December. But that’s so close to Christmas it seems much more likely we’d have to wait until the new year, if there’s no decision by the judges before next Thursday.
There are two elements to what the judges will now consider. 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.
Although most legal commentators expect Mr Woolas to lose, there’s always the chance he might win. And even if he were to lose it’s also possible he might try to raise more money to continue his legal fight, perhaps at the Court of Appeal. Either eventuality would cause even more uncertainty about Saddleworth’s political future.
Mr Woolas had his victory in May’s general election declared void, and he was banned from holding public office for three years, by two High Court judges sitting in Uppermill earlier this month. They agreed that the ex-Labour minister had broken the law by knowingly lying about his Liberal Democrat opponent, Elwyn Watkins, in campaign leaflets.
Lawyers for Mr Woolas have been arguing in court over the past two days that those judges were wrong because the law in question has been left outdated by the modern European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the right to free speech. Mr Watkins’ team have said the right to free speech doesn’t cover statements “where that freedom is abused… on the basis of falsehoods.”
The BBC’s take on today’s events is here.
You can read the full background to the case from Saddleworth News here.
(UPDATE 17/11: This article was amended after publication to make it clear the minimum time period for calling a by-election is 15 days, not 17, as well as to reflect this afternoon’s developments, including the general view that we’re unlikely to get an outcome until next week)