Legal action may bar council leader from office – and raise questions about the Electoral Commission’s lack of action

North West Leicestershire District Council leader Conservative Richard Blunt is facing High Court action from a defeated opponent over whether or not he was actually qualified to stand.

Blunt appears to have qualified to stand under the provision that he owned property in the area. However the wording of the law is unclear, talking about “occupying as owner” with the possible implication that therefore you also have to actually be living or otherwise have use of the property. In Blunt’s case, though, the property was rented out to others – leading the defeated independent candidate Colin Roberts to argue that he therefore was not qualified to stand as he was not occupying it.

This point of law has been interpreted in different ways by different councils over the years. Some council lawyers have taken the view that the use of “occupying” in reference to owning property means that simply owning property is not enough. Instead you must in some ways actually occupy it, either by living there or scenarios such as using it solely for your own business purposes without other people living there.

However, other council lawyers have taken a different view, which is that such an interpretation would mean this ground for qualifying as a local election candidate is substantively no different from other grounds. If you have to live somewhere to qualify under the ownership provision, for example, then it makes it no different from the other qualification option of living there anyway. Therefore, so this legal argument goes, it is the wrong interpretation of the law as it reduces the different qualifications to duplicating each other. Moreover, case law in other areas points to “occupy” meaning something wider than residence.

The case may also raise questions over the Electoral Commission’s role because the Commission has been aware of the conflicting interpretations of the law since at least 2008, when I raised it with them after two separate incidents (one in London and one in Wales) in which Liberal Democrat candidates were nearly blocked from standing.

I pushed the Electoral Commission in both 2008 and 2009 either to come to a clear view on how the law should be interpreted, and then give a clear steer to Returning Officers along that line, or if it decided the law was not clear to request a change in the law from the government. At the time the Commission decided to do neither and instead reworded its guidance to hedge on the issue (as can be seen from the latest English guidance which uses phrases such as sub-letting “will point against you having ‘occupied’ it” rather than providing a clear view of the law).

A court ruling may provide future candidates with the clarity the Electoral Commission decided not to seek.

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