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Tower Hamlets Mayoral election petition case moved to RCJ

The legal challenge to the validity of the Tower Hamlets Mayoral election is to be held in the Royal Courts of Justice commencing 2nd February 2015.

Normally a case of this type would be held in the town hall of the relevant electoral area, but for numerous reasons the case will be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) in the Strand.

Tower Hamlets residents Andy Erlam, Debbie Simone, Azmal Hussein and Angela Moffat have submitted a petition to have the Mayoral election result declared void because of numerous allegations of voting fraud and intimidation.

Royal Courts of Justice, Strand. Photo: Anthony M Creative Commons 2.0

Royal Courts of Justice, Strand. Photo: Anthony M Creative Commons 2.0

 

Not a criminal trial

It should be emphasised that this is not a criminal trial and it specifically relates to the election for the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, not the elections for local councillors.

While allegations have been made all have been denied and have yet to be tried.

Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s team have made several attempts to stop the test of the petitioners claims going ahead and this decision to hold the case at the RCJ and not the Town Hall can be seen as another setback.

If the petition was proved to be valid there is the possibility that the result of the May 2014 Mayoral election could be declared void.

Highlights of the reasons given for the decision to hold the trial in the Royal Courts of Justice are:

  • The petition raises the legality of events across the whole borough, not just one electoral ward
  • Issue of possible witness intimidation
  • Allegation that the Town Hall contains significant number of political supporters of mayor Rahman
  • Allegations that Town Hall staff were involved or complicit in electoral fraud
  • The PwC auditors report reinforces many of the allegations made by the petitioners (although this does not prove them)
  • Possibility of disorder at the trial
  • Continuing investigations by the Metropolitan Police into possible criminal activity continue
  • The DCLG Commissioners appointed by Eric Pickles have already started worked at the Town Hall
  • Tower Hamlets town hall does not have the appropriate facilities for a trial of this type and length

Town Hall not fit for purpose

Other possible venues have been investigated but none are fit for purpose.

The recent occasion when Ken Livingstone, a supporter of the Mayor, made a public call for campaigns of harassment against the DCLG Commissioners is also referenced.

Key points of ruling

Below is the text of the key points from the decision by Richard Mawrey QC, the Commissioner of the Tower Hamlets election court hearing. Full text can be found in PDF below.

“In general the most likely venue for the trial of a petition challenging a local authority election is the authority’s Town Hall. It is not the inevitable venue and I have tried other petitions (notably Birmingham) in some other building within the electoral area. In this petition, however, the Town Hall was put forward as the most suitable venue and I shall approach the question by considering that venue first.

As the parties are aware, I have been uneasy about the Town Hall as a venue from an early stage. This case differs from the norm of local authority petitions. Historically, local election petitions have concerned events in a single ward (occasionally two wards as in Birmingham in 2005). In those circumstances, the Town Hall of the Borough represents both a convenient and a relatively neutral venue. Here the challenge is to the election of an executive mayor whose headquarters is inevitably the Town Hall itself. Even were feelings not running as high as they are here, there must be grave doubts as to propriety of a petition to unseat an executive mayor being tried in his own Town Hall.

This case is unusual in that there are persistent and highly publicised allegations that witnesses, in particular witnesses for the Petitioners, have been subject to intimidation of themselves or their families both within the Borough and, indeed, in Bangladesh. Certain of the witness statements have been served with the names and addresses of the witness redacted and there is a possibility that I shall be asked to make witness anonymity orders. As said above, I cannot and do not at this stage decide whether these allegations are well-founded but it would be irresponsible to discount them and to decide the venue in a vacuum.

I have also to look at the question of intimidation in the context of the allegations, supported by witness statements, of widespread voter intimidation at the polls. These allegations also cannot be ignored. I fully appreciate that the first Respondent denies the allegations of intimidation and denies that, if it did occur, it can be laid at his door. None the less the evidence submitted does raise at least a triable issue as to intimidation.

Furthermore the Town Hall cannot realistically be regarded as a neutral venue. The witness statements include a body of evidence to the effect that the Town Hall staff contains a significant body of political supporters of Mr Rahman whose conduct in the past is said to have gone well beyond what is permissible in the case of local civil servants. There are also allegations (which may or may not be well founded) of Town Hall staff having been involved in (or at least complicit in) active electoral fraud.

In this context, though I accept that it is not yet evidence in the case and may never become so, these allegations find considerable support in the PwC report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. It would do little to enhance the view of the court as a neutral and impartial venue if it were held in a venue which is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be staffed by people who are, to put it neutrally, partisan. There would be legitimate fears that the staff might obstruct or identify vulnerable witnesses and, whatever precautions are taken, the security of documents would always have a question mark over it (however unjustified that might turn out to be).

When the matter was before Supperstone J the concern raised was of disorder at the trial and the Judge pointed, quite rightly, to the powers of a Commissioner to enlist the assistance of the Police. Events have, as said above, moved on somewhat. It is no longer primarily a question of maintaining an orderly trial. If that were the only concern, I would not be revisiting the earlier decision. The fact is that the position of the Metropolitan Police has become more complex, as it is no secret that the Met is conducting its own enquiries as to potential criminal offences committed in the course of the May election (hence the involvement of officers at the Scrutiny) and has been further dragged into this case by the allegations made on both sides of witness intimidation. Nor can I overlook that the case itself does involve criticism (which, as I say, may be entirely unfounded) of the involvement of the Met in policing the election itself. Thus the issues raised before Supperstone J have been overtaken by the subsequent history of this petition.

An additional change of circumstances arises from the Secretary of State’s publication of the PwC report and his appointment of commissioners to take over certain of the functions of the Council. Those commissioners have already started work at the Town Hall. The appointment of the commissioners has been met with considerable hostility in certain areas and I cannot overlook the fact that, at a rally attended by the first Respondent, certain of his high-profile political supporters such as Mr Ken Livingstone and Mr George Galloway MP made very public (and much broadcast) calls for campaigns of harassment to be directed against what they describe as interference with the democratic process.

This might be mitigated if the Town Hall were otherwise a suitable venue for a trial but it is not. I carried out an inspection last week and the facilities are simply not appropriate for a lengthy trial. The only available courtroom is the Council Chamber. This cannot really be converted into an acceptable courtroom. It has fixed desks which are not convenient for a three-party case, especially one with copious documents. There is no real space for a ‘witness box’. Everything would have to be cleared out for Council meetings. There are no practicable rooms for the judge’s retiring or for the parties’ legal teams. More to the point, the Council Chamber is in the heart of the office area with the staff problems already referred to.

For all these reasons I have ruled out the Town Hall as a venue.

I indicated at an early stage, when the Petitioners raised their objections, that the parties should attempt to find possible alternative venues within the Borough. The Returning Officer and his solicitors have made considerable efforts to find an alternative venue and I made a tour of the four venues they had located. None of them was remotely suitable and some of the problems involved in the Town Hall as a venue would have applied to those venues even if they had been suitable.

I have thus, with great reluctance, come to the conclusion that there are here the kind of special circumstances envisaged by the 1983 Act and that the proper course is to order the trial to be held in the Royal Courts of Justice.”

 

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