R (Woolas) v Parliamentary Election Court for Oldham East and Saddleworth

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
JudgeLord Justice Thomas
Judgment Date03 December 2010
Neutral Citation[2010] EWHC 3169 (Admin)
Docket NumberCase No: CO/11578/2010
CourtQueen's Bench Division (Administrative Court)
Date03 December 2010
Regina on the Application of Philip James Woolas
The Parliamentary Election Court
Robert Elwyn James Watkins
First Interested Party
The Speaker of the House of Commons
Second Interested Party

[2010] EWHC 3169 (Admin)

Before: Lord Justice Thomas

Mr Justice Tugendhat

Mrs Justice Nicola Da Vies Dbe

Case No: CO/11578/2010



Mr Gavin Millar QC and Mr Anthony Hudson (instructed by Steel & Shamash) for the Claimant

Miss Helen Mountfield QC and Mr James Laddie (instructed by K & L Gates LLP) for the First Interested Party

Hearing dates: 16 and 17 November 2010

Approved Judgment

Lord Justice Thomas

Lord Justice Thomas:

This is the judgment of the court to which we have each contributed.



During the nineteenth century, Parliament passed a number of laws to ensure that elections were freely and fairly conducted. That legislation is now reflected in the Representation of the People Act 1983 (the 1983 Act). One of the provisions, s. 106(1), originally enacted in 1895, makes a person guilty of an illegal practice if before or during an election for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election he makes or publishes “any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate's personal character or conduct”, unless the person can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing and did believe the statement to be true.


On 27 May 2010, Mr Watkins the Liberal Democrat Party Candidate for the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency in the General Election on 6 May 2010 brought a petition under s.120 of the 1983 Act. He claimed that Mr Woolas, the Labour Party Candidate who had been returned as MP at the General Election by 103 votes was guilty of illegal practices under s.106 by making five false statements in three election leaflets drafted by Mr Woolas' election team and for which he has accepted responsibility.


In 1868, Parliament entrusted to a reluctant judiciary, as we explain at paragraph 23 below, the limited task of determining disputes on an election petition. That task has, since the end of that century, been carried out by an election court. Such a court was constituted under s.123 of the 1983 Act from the rota of judges for the trial of Parliamentary Election Petitions. Teare and Griffith Williams JJ were selected and constituted the court (the Election Court) which tried the petition between 13 and 16 September 2010.


The function of an election court is very limited, as we explain at paragraphs 31 and 32 below. It determines the issues which have arisen on the petition; the consequences are specified in the 1983 Act. On 5 November 2010, the Election Court found Mr Woolas guilty of an illegal practice by making three false statements in the three leaflets in relation to the personal conduct of Mr Watkins in the election leaflets. The decision is reported at [2010] EWHC 2702 (QB). It found that three of the statements, on the meaning attributed by the Court to them, (i) were statements of fact and not opinion (ii) were in relation to Mr Watkins' personal conduct or character, (iii) were false and (iv) Mr Woolas did not believe two of them to be true (a finding of dishonesty) and had no reasonable grounds for believing one them to be true (a finding of negligence). The reasons for the findings are fully set out in the decision of the Election Court. The findings of fact made by the Election Court included findings as to the meanings of the statements contained in the election leaflets. The Election Court reached these findings by considering what the words would mean to the ordinary and reasonable reader in the constituency.


Having made those findings the Election Court declared that the election was void by reason of the operation of s.159(1) of the 1983 Act and certified that to the Speaker under s.144 (1) and (2). It also reported under ss.144 (4), 158 and 160 to the Speaker that Mr Woolas was guilty of an illegal practice. The report had the effect of

compelling him to vacate his seat and barring him from being elected to the House of Commons for three years (s. 160(4) and (5)).


On the same day, Mr Woolas made an application for permission to bring judicial review proceedings contending that the Election Court had applied the wrong legal test in approaching the question of whether the statements were statements “in relation to the personal character or conduct” of a candidate within the meaning of s. 106. They had therefore reached a decision that was wrong in law.


The application was refused by the single judge. It was then renewed before us on the basis we would consider the application for permission first and if we granted it, then whether we should grant the relief claimed.


The application before us gave rise to two issues:

i) Can this Court judicially review a determination on a point of law made by an

election court for a parliamentary election? This point has never before arisen for decision.

ii) Did the Election Court apply the correct legal test to its determination that the statements it found had been made were statements “in relation to the personal character or conduct” of Mr Watkins? The last substantial case on this issue was in 1911.


It is important to stress that counsel on behalf of Mr Woolas did not seek to challenge the findings of fact made by the Election Court. Mr Woolas strongly disputes those findings, particularly those of dishonesty in relation to two of the three statements, but it is accepted on his behalf that the 1983 Act does not provide for any appeal on any issue of fact and that no challenge can be made to the findings of fact on any judicial review that may be available to him given the limited scope of any such judicial review. We have therefore to consider the issues on the basis of these findings.

Summary of our conclusions


The role of the Election Court was very limited. It had to carry out the role imposed on it by Parliament to determine whether there had been an illegal practice under s.106 during the election campaign in the constituency in 2010. Our role was even more limited —to decide, if we had jurisdiction to do so, whether the Election Court had interpreted s.106 correctly. Under our constitution it is for the judiciary to determine the meaning of the law enacted by Parliament (see paragraphs 51–53 below). The consequences of a finding on the correct interpretation of s.106 that there had been an illegal practice by Mr Woolas followed automatically as prescribed by Parliament. The Courts therefore do no more than to discharge these limited functions; it is for the electorate to determine whom it wishes to elect in a free and fair election.


We have concluded that we have jurisdiction to determine whether the Election Court was correct in its interpretation of s.106. Our reasons are set out at paragraphs 14 to 62.


We have concluded, with the benefit of much fuller argument than was available to the Election Court, on the basis of our interpretation of s.106 that two of the three statements for which Mr Woolas accepted responsibility were false statements in relation to Mr Watkins' personal character or conduct, but that the third was not. We have set out our reasons at paragraphs 63 to 124.


In the result, the Certificate to the Speaker and the Report of the Election Court must therefore be upheld. The consequence is that the election of Mr Woolas is void and he is barred from seeking re-election for 3 years.


(i) The current position in relation to election courts


It was the contention advanced by Miss Mountfield QC on behalf of Mr Watkins that the Election Court was not amenable to judicial review. Between 1870 (shortly after the courts were given jurisdiction in relation to Parliamentary election cases) and 1914, the courts heard 151 parliamentary election petitions alleging electoral malpractice; 69 MPs were unseated. Since 1918, there have only been 7 successful petitions; the last time an MP was ousted was in 1924. No one was aware of any occasion on which an attempt had been made to bring judicial review proceedings in respect of the decision of an election court in respect of a parliamentary election (or elections to the European Parliament or National Assembly for Wales which are subject to the same provisions).


There is, however, another type of election court —an election court for a local election —in respect of which the issue was considered. Although both types are referred to as election courts in the legislation, it is necessary for the purposes of determining this issue to refer to them respectively as a parliamentary election court and a local election court. In R v Cripps ex p Muldoon [1984] QB 68, a Divisional Court (Robert Goff LJ and Mann J) decided that a local election court was amenable to judicial review. That decision has not been called into question; indeed since that decision there have been judicial reviews of local election courts where the issue of jurisdiction has not been questioned: see, for example, R v Rowe ex p Mainwaring [1992] 1 WLR 1059.


The court in Muldoon declined to express any opinion on whether a parliamentary election court was amenable to judicial review; they recognised that it might be thought anomalous that one type of election court could be and the other was not, but pointed out that Lord Widgery CJ had contemplated that conclusion in R v Election Court ex p Sheppard [1975] 1 WLR 1319. All that was decided in Muldoon was that the local election court was amenable to judicial review for acting in excess of jurisdiction. It was therefore further contended by Miss...

To continue reading

Request your trial
14 cases
1 firm's commentaries
  • A Summary Of Recent Developments In Insurance, Reinsurance And Litigation Law - (02/12)
    • United Kingdom
    • Mondaq United Kingdom
    • 26 Enero 2012
    ...v Stephens & Anor Whether periodical payments order was reasonably secure/arguments raised by MIB http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2012/1.html The claimant suffered serious injuries following a road traffic accident caused by the admitted negligence of the first defendant. The fir......
3 books & journal articles
  • Table of Cases
    • United Kingdom
    • Wildy Simmonds & Hill Vexatious Litigants and Civil Restraint Orders. A Practitioner's Handbook Contents
    • 30 Agosto 2014
    ...v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2009] EWHC 760 (Admin) 79 R (Woolas) v The Parliamentary Election Court and Others [2010] EWHC 3169 (Admin) 149 Roult v North West Strategic Health Authority [2009] EWCA Civ 444 98 Sandhu v Sidhu [2010] EWCA Civ 531 130–1 Secretary of State for ......
  • Civil Restraint Orders in Other Courts and Tribunals
    • United Kingdom
    • Wildy Simmonds & Hill Vexatious Litigants and Civil Restraint Orders. A Practitioner's Handbook Contents
    • 30 Agosto 2014
    ...EWCA Civ 859, Eba v Advocate General for Scotland [2010] CSIH 78, and R (Woolas) v The Parliamentary Election Court and Others [2010] EWHC 3169 (Admin). 13 R (Rex Cart) v The Upper Tribunal and Others [2010] EWCA Civ 859 at [20], [31] and [35] per Waller LJ, and R (Woolas) v The Parliamenta......
  • 2011-05-01
    • United Kingdom
    • Edinburgh University Press Edinburgh Law Review No. , May 2011
    • 1 Mayo 2011
    ...to ten years.1616s 159. The Election Court in Watkins v Woolas disqualified Mr Woolas for three years, a decision upheld on appeal: [2010] EWHC 3169 (Admin). Oddly, it is neither the general law pertaining to MPs or elections that determines in the first instance whether Mr Sheridan has cap......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT