Former Saddleworth MP Phil Woolas has lost his legal attempt to overturn the decision to throw him out of parliament. It now seems certain that a by-election will be held early in the new year.
The ex-Labour minister had his victory in May’s general election declared void last month, because he told lies about his Liberal Democrat opponent Elwyn Watkins in campaign leaflets. That verdict was upheld at the High Court in central London today.
The ruling was handed down by three senior judges. They heard a day and a half of legal argument a fortnight ago, as part of a legal process which has been speeded up so we’re not left without an MP for too long.
As a result of the fast-tracked proceedings, the judges considered two sets of arguments at the same time. First, they had to decide whether they had the right to even hear a judicial review in the first place.
Usually the High Court would not be allowed to hear an appeal on a decision made in the High Court, and the initial case in Uppermill was heard by two High Court judges. But because they had sat as a special election court, there was disagreement about whether that counted as the High Court or not. The three judges agreed with the Woolas team, and decided they could consider the arguments which were put as part of the judicial review.
Those arguments concerned whether the original judges were correct or not. Lawyers for Mr Woolas contended they were wrong because the piece of election law which he was found to have broken has been left outdated by the modern European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the right to free speech.
In addition, the Woolas team argued the Uppermill judges got it wrong when they held that the statements made in the leaflets were about Mr Watkins’ personal character rather than his political views. That distinction has been absolutely crucial throughout this legal battle because, put simply, you can say more or less what you like about someone’s political opinions, but lying about their personal character is against the law.
In return, lawyers for Mr Watkins submitted that the right to free speech doesn’t cover statements “where that freedom is abused… on the basis of falsehoods.” They also argued that the original judges were “undoubtedly right” in their ruling.
The judges sitting in central London today ruled against Mr Woolas once again as they agreed with the guilty verdict from the initial hearing. They held that statements which related to Mr Watkins’ alleged attempts to woo so-called “Muslim extremists” did indeed relate to his personal character, and so were against the law.
The two judges in the original case heard four days of evidence in Uppermill in September, and returned last month to find against Mr Woolas. They declared the result of May’s general election void, and Mr Woolas stopped being an MP at that moment. Mr Woolas, who had represented Saddleworth since 1997, was also later also suspended by the Labour Party. It was the first successful election legal challenge on the basis of criminal wrongdoing by a candidate for almost a century.
Within minutes of the Uppermill verdict, Mr Woolas announced his intention to try to force a judicial review, even though he was already facing a potential six-figure legal bill from the original case. He received donations worth tens of thousands of pounds to his legal ‘fighting fund’ for the London hearing, with several Labour MPs and even Conservative blogger Iain Dale among those giving cash.
However, it now seems certain that voters here in Saddleworth will soon get the opportunity to elect a new MP. Mr Woolas wouldn’t be able to stand even as an independent, because as part of his punishment he’s barred from holding public office for the next three years.
You can read both the summary and the full judgement here.
The full background to the case from Saddleworth News is available here.