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Case no: M/278/95 ...
Case no: M/278/95

A would-be Conservative councillor caught up in the debacle over the Wells City Council elections last May was today facing a 'very substantial' legal costs bill.

Rosemary Woods failed to persuade London's high court in December that breaches of election rules had been so 'flagrant' as to demand a completely new poll.

And she paid the heavy price of defeat when the court today saddled her with a large part of the estimated £60,000 cost of sorting out the complex muddle.

The rest of the costs bill will fall on Mendip DC chief executive - the returning officer at the error-strewn election - Graham Jeffs.

After the May 4 election for the city's St Cuthbert's Ward Mrs Woods was declared one of the six candidates elected, with 284 votes against Mrs Marshall's 229.

But Mr Justice Colman told the court today: 'Within a few days it became clear that not all the votes cast in the election had been counted.

'Indeed it appears that barely more than half of the votes cast in the election had been counted when the result of the poll was declared'.

A high court supervised recount put Mrs Marshall ahead of her rival and, on December 14 last year, Mr Justice Colman, sitting with Mr Justice Bell, declared her the winner with 464 votes to Mrs Woods's 462.

The Conservative had already taken her oath of office when the judges stripped her of her seat and conferred it on her Liberal Democrat opponent.

Mrs Woods claimed a series of breaches of electoral rules on the part of deputy returning officer, Peter Bobbett, and his assistants meant that the entire election was null and void and had to be held afresh.

In particular she pointed to breaches of security which could have enabled unauthorised persons to have access to the ballot boxes before the recount.

Unsealed ballot boxes had been taken home by Mr Bobbett and one of his assistants, with two of them kept in a bedroom at his home overnight and another three in the locked boot of an assistant's car.

Over the bank holiday weekend the boxes had been kept in a locked council chamber at Mendip DC's offices in Shepton Mallett with the key looked after by a caretaker.

But Mr Justice Colman ruled today that although the various breaches of electoral rules had been 'serious', the poll had nevertheless been carried out 'substantially in accordance with the law'.

'We reach the conclusion that the chance of secrecy of the ballot having been invaded or of the ballot papers having been tampered with are so small as to be minimal.'

The court formally declared that Mrs Marshall had been 'duly elected' ahead of her rival.

Mrs Woods was ordered to pay the action's legal costs - including those of a two-day high court hearing with three counsel - from November 3 1995 onwards.

Mendip DC chief executive Graham Jeffs was ordered to pay all legal costs incurred before that date, but his solicitor, Ashley Badcock, said outside court that he had probably been insured.

Mr Badcock added that Mrs Woods might end up having to pay the majority of the 'very substantial' legal costs bill. Whether she would be helped out by the Conservative party or others, he was unable to say.

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