Woolas launches bid to clear name
Former minister Phil Woolas has launched his High Court bid to overturn a decision stripping him of his Commons seat, saying that freedom of speech at elections is at stake.
As Mr Woolas arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice in London for the unprecedented case, he told reporters he was "hopeful" that he could clear his name.
A specially convened election court declared void the General Election result in Oldham East and Saddleworth. It removed Mr Woolas as the MP and banned him from standing for election for three years after finding him guilty of deliberately lying about a rival, Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins.
Mr Woolas's legal team asked three senior judges to rule that the election court misdirected itself in law and made a flawed decision.
As it is the first claim of its kind, Lord Justice Thomas, Mr Justice Tugendhat and Mrs Justice Nicola Davies have also to decide in a two-day hearing whether they have power to hear his fast-tracked application for judicial review.
The legal challenge has been brought on for hearing as a matter of urgency to ensure the seat does not go too long without an MP. Labour - which immediately suspended Mr Woolas from the party - said it would delay calling a fresh election pending the legal fight.
Mr Woolas was found guilty of illegal practices under election law over comments made in his campaign material that Mr Watkins tried to "woo" the votes of Muslims who advocated violence and that he had refused to condemn extremists who advocated violence against the Labour ex-minister.
The election court judges ruled that, although made in the context of an election campaign, the comments clearly amounted to attacks on his opponent's "personal character or conduct" and Mr Woolas, who beat Mr Watkins by just 103 votes in a bitter campaign, had "no reasonable grounds for believing them to be true and did not believe them to be true".
In his submissions to the High Court, Gavin Millar QC, argued the election court had misdirected itself on the true meaning and effect of the words "personal character or conduct".
Mr Millar contended the election court's interpretation of provisions of the 1983 Representation of the People Act was inconsistent with free speech principles and violated Mr Woolas's right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.