Why Iain Dale is wrong about Phil Woolas and libel

Iain Dale has posed the question why Elwyn Watkins, the Liberal Democrat candidate up against Phil Woolas, didn’t sue for libel instead of looking to have his election result over-turned:

To my mind, the way these kind of disputes should be resolved is not to take them to ‘election courts’, but instead through the libel courts. It’s interesting that the LibDem candidate didn’t go down that route. I wonder why not.

I think the answer is very simple. Imagine he had sued for libel and won. Then what? He’d have got a libel payout (nice), Phil Woolas’s reputation would have been damaged (good) but – crucially – Phil Woolas would still have been the MP and would have continued to be the MP for years to come.

That is the limitation with sueing for libel: the only punishment available to the courts is the level of payout. Yet not everything can be put right by cash.

Put it the other way round: imagine if a candidate had said, ‘It’s outrageous. The victor lied about me. But I’ll be happy if he stays in office as long as I get some cash’. Wouldn’t sound too flattering of the losing candidate’s attitude would it?

Nick Thonrsby, by the way, has a good response to the other points in Iain Dale’s post.

3 responses to “Why Iain Dale is wrong about Phil Woolas and libel”

  1. Absolutely, Mark. I suspect Elwyn would get a substantial payout if he were to sue for libel, and it would be one way to clear his name. However pursuing a case under the RPA allows proper justice to be done for the people of OES, who went to the polls having been lied to on three occasions by one of the candidates.

    I really don’t buy the argument that this case is somehow an ‘affront’ to democracy – if anything, it is precisely the opposite, and should do a lot to improve political discourse .

  2. Totally agree – candidates have tried to use libel law to rein in oponents who overstep the line – but its only going to result in an apology or compensation and won’t see the result overturned.

    Going for the RPA solution is however only really available when the result is very close – so that Watkins was clearly able to show that the impact of the literature could have made the difference to the result.

    The resort to the courts is not just consistent with democracy – its essential. In OES voters were conned by a candidate who thought he could get away with it (again). The reason we have laws on this and other aspects like postal voting, conduct of counts etc is to ensure that we have a fair process… Before thsi we used to have the rotten boroughs and bought elections… Are some commentators really argiung to go back there?!

  3. Paul – your second paragraph isn’t quite correct. For action under the offence of ‘undue influence’ you do have to show that the illegal act altered the result, but for the offence in this case there isn’t that same requirement. You do have to show that the offence was serious enough to warrant disqualification, but you don’t have to show – for example – that enough individuals were directly influenced to alter the result.

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