Ending as I begun: unusual legal advice

I started working for the Liberal Democrats in 2000, just as the Electoral Commission was being created. Through the years a regular part of my job has been dealing with telegrams, phone calls or emails from people along the lines of “The Council says the Electoral Commission has told them that no-one with vowels in their surname is allowed to stand in our by-election. Is that right?”

It’s fair to say that generally things have got better: the Electoral Commission’s staff do get the law right much more often than they used to,* and councils and other bodies are much more willing to listen to their corrective advice. But things aren’t perfect…

And so this time round we had the little incident in south east England, where a Liberal Democrat leaflet featured a candidate photographed outside the local hospital with its “welcome sign” clearly visible.

Someone in the trust decided they didn’t like this and contacted the Electoral Commission. Someone there advised that this was a breach of the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007.

Now, there’s two problems with this:

1. Sanity check: take a step back and think about this. Is it really against planning law (not even anti-terrorism law) for someone to be photographed standing outside a welcome sign? If it were, wouldn’t there be lots of candidates being convicted all round the country?

2. Lawyer check: don your legal hat, consider that sometimes the law does say silly things, and read the regulations in question. You’ll find they are about putting up posters (with a special provision for election posters – they don’t require planning permission but they have to come down promptly after the election). Not about standing outside a welcome sign with a camera.

So quite how the Electoral Commission managed to give this as advice I don’t know … but on being asked to think again and clarify their argument, they did indeed decide that this advice was wrong and no law was broken. Phew.


* Of course, getting the law right isn’t the only criterion. I do still remember with fondness the highly detailed advice the Commission gave on how to value rosettes when putting together expense returns, and in particular the depreciation rules which should be used over the years after the initial purchase of the rosettes. The advice was certainly in line with the law but perhaps a little over the top…

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