The latest attempt by former Saddleworth MP Phil Woolas to salvage his political career in the courts will take place next week. His appeal against the decision to strip him of his victory in May’s general election for knowingly lying about an opponent is to be heard on Tuesday.
Two High Court judges, sitting in Uppermill, ruled last Friday that Mr Woolas had broken election law by making false statements about Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins in various leaflets. He beat Mr Watkins by just 103 votes in the election, at the end of what was a bitterly-fought campaign.
On Monday, Mr Woolas made an initial attempt to force a judicial review of that verdict. But a High Court judge said that wouldn’t be an appropriate legal option, because it would involve the High Court effectively passing judgement on one of its own decisions.
That judge, Mr Justice Silber, gave Mr Woolas until the end of this week to lodge a new appeal. The reason for the speed was because the judge said it was “essential” for people in Oldham East and Saddleworth to have an MP as soon as possible, Mr Woolas having stopped being our MP the moment he lost the initial case last Friday. That view was backed up later in the day by the Speaker, meaning that no by-election can be held here until after all the legal processes are over.
Since then Mr Woolas has been fundraising to try to get the money together to pursue the matter further. Several of his former Labour colleagues are among those who have donated cash, and it seems those efforts have been successful.
It’s likely the appeal will focus on the notion of whether the statements made in the leaflets were about the personal character of Mr Watkins, or just related to his political views. That distinction was absolutely crucial in the initial case. Put simply, you can more or less say what you like about someone’s policies, but knowingly telling lies about their personal character or conduct is against the law.
During the four-day hearing in Uppermill back in September, lawyers argued about whether the claims made by Mr Woolas about Mr Watkins’ living arrangements, campaign funding and alleged failure to condemn so-called “Muslim extremists” fell into the category of ‘personal character or conduct’ or not. The judges ultimately held that they did.
After the verdict, the solicitor for Mr Woolas, Gerald Shamash, indicated this point of law would be the basis for any appeal. He said: “In reaching this decision, the court adopted an interpretation of conduct decided in a case nearly 100 years ago, when considering a 19th century statute.”
Mr Shamash continued: “The court has decided that an election should be overturned and an MP should lose his seat and be incapable of being elected to the House of Commons for three years because statements which attacked a candidate’s ‘political conduct’ were also attacks on his ‘honour’ and ‘purity.'”
Here’s what he was talking about. The law which Mr Woolas broke was passed in 1983, but was largely based on an earlier law called the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act 1895, hence the reference to a “19th century statute.” It was under that law that the last successful election court case was brought 99 years ago. That was so long ago it actually related to a constituency in County Louth in Ireland, which at the time still sent MPs to Westminster.
In Friday’s verdict, the judges referred back to a definition of ‘personal character or conduct’ given by the judge in the Louth case: “A politician for his public conduct may be criticised, held up to obloquy; for that the statute gives no redress, but when the man beneath the politician has his honour, veracity and purity assailed, he is entitled to demand that his constituents shall not be poisoned against him by false statements containing such unfounded imputations.”
All very flowery, but still good enough to help the judges find Mr Woolas guilty last Friday. His lawyers will no doubt argue in the appeal that such a definition is outdated, and that in modern politics it’s much harder to tell when ‘personal character or conduct’ stops and political views start. On that legal technicality hangs the political future of Phil Woolas.
(Editor’s note: I should probably have begun this article by writing ‘I’m no lawyer, but…’ I’m not claiming that this is anything like a definitive account of the legal points in this case. If anyone has anything to add, or knows better, please do leave a comment below, I’d be delighted to read it!)
(UPDATE 11/11: It’s now emerged from the PA that the hearing is scheduled for a day and a half, so we should get an outcome next Wednesday. Three judges will be presiding, led by appeals judge Lord Justice Thomas, sitting alongside Mr Justice Tugendhat and Mrs Justice Nicola Davies. I’m told it’s definitely another judicial review, although calling it an ‘appeal’ is fine)
You can read last Friday’s verdict in full here.
The story about the date of the appeal was first broken on Twitter by Granada’s Claire Ashforth. You can follow her account here.
The full archive of articles from Saddleworth News about the battle for Oldham East and Saddleworth is here.