The final Phil Woolas judgement: its legal implications

Although the BBC got rather excitable in its coverage of Friday’s legal defeat for ex-Labour MP Phil Woolas, talking about how the ruling was set to have a major impact on how elections are run in the UK, the reality is rather more prosaic. The law which Woolas broke isn’t new and nor has the case thrown up significant precedent or previously overlooked aspects to it.

The Phil Woolas judgement: Arthur Balfour was right

The election offence for which Phil Woolas’s election was overturned is, deliberately and rightly, drawn narrowly and precisely. more

There probably will be some candidates and agents whose eyes have previously skipped over the part of the guidance from their local returning officer, the Electoral Commission or their political party which makes reference to this law and who next time round will pay a little more attention to what the guidance says. But there will not be any rapid major rewriting of any of those sources of information – as warnings about this part of the law have regularly featured in all of them.

That said, there are some legal points which the Phil Woolas case has addressed and on which the High Court’s ruling gives clarity.

The most important is on whether or not the High Court can judicially review a determination made on a point of law by an election court for a Parliamentary election. Points of fact are settled by the election court, but in other cases where the facts are settled in one court, points of law can still be challenged in another court.

The High Court decided that it does have the power to do this, even though – as the ruling points out – there is already a process to refer points of law from the election court to the High Court (see paragraphs 59-62 of the ruling). This extension of the ability to query points of law with a body other than the election court itself is a welcome one as it provides a strengthened safeguard against the law being wrongly applied.

The other point on which this case may well be cited in future is its refinement of the law’s wording on what is banned. As the ruling says, “There is in our judgement a very significant difference between a statement that goes to the political conduct of a candidate and one that goes beyond it and says something personal about his personal character … Freedom of political debate must allow for the fact that statements are made which attack the political character of a candidate”.

If anything, the ruling widens the grounds for defence under this law rather than narrowing them.

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