The latest legal hearing in the Phil Woolas case is due to resume at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London this morning. The former Saddleworth MP is fighting the decision to strip him of his victory in May’s general election, and ban him from holding public office for three years.
Two judges, sitting in Uppermill, ruled earlier this month that Mr Woolas had broken the law by knowingly making false statements about his Liberal Democrat opponent Elwyn Watkins in campaign leaflets. His lawyers are asking a panel of three judges to allow a judicial review of that decision.
They have argued that the statements made in the leaflets were not about the ‘personal character or conduct’ of Mr Watkins, but rather related to his political views. That distinction was absolutely crucial in the initial case, because telling lies about a rival’s ‘personal character or conduct’ rather than their political views is what is against the law.
The law in question was passed in 1983, but is based on an earlier statute from 1895. Until Mr Watkins won the initial case, the last successful challenge of this nature relating to a Westminster election was brought 99 years ago.
The Woolas team pointed out that the judges who sat in Uppermill relied on a definition of ‘personal character or conduct’ given by a judge in that 1911 case. They have argued that the law goes against principles of free speech enshrined in the much more modern European Convention on Human Rights.
Meanwhile, Helen Mountfield QC, who has represented Mr Watkins throughout, used a written submission to argue: “It is no part of the law to protect freedom of expression where that freedom is abused… on the basis of falsehoods.”
Arriving at court yesterday, Mr Woolas told reporters he was “hopeful” about the outcome. Mr Watkins has taken a break from campaigning ahead of the potential by-election to attend as well.
Today could turn out to be the end of the road for Mr Woolas. If the judges refuse his application for a review, it’s thought he’ll have to concede defeat. That would leave him facing not only a life outside politics and the Labour Party which has suspended him, but also a legal bill estimated at several hundred thousand pounds.
A by-election could then be announced for the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency, with 16 December the most likely date. But we’ve had so many twists in this saga so far, there’s always the chance of another one today.
Granada’s Claire Ashforth is attending the hearing, and you can follow her on Twitter here.
You can read the full background to the case from Saddleworth News here.