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POSTAL VOTE JUDGEMENT: KEY ISSUES OF REGULATIONS RAISED

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The high court in London has said the election result in Belle Vale & Hasbury (Dudley MBC), must stand after the lo...
The high court in London has said the election result in Belle Vale & Hasbury (Dudley MBC), must stand after the losing candidate failed in his legal bid to force a by-election.

Martin Knight (the Labour Party candidate) brought the case against the returning officer and Jill Nicholls (the successful Conservative Party candidate who won the seat by 40 votes) after the Royal Mail failed to deliver 58 postal ballot papers in time for the vote.

Mr Justice Cresswell and Mr Justice Fulford dismissed the case on Friday but granted Mr Knight leave to appeal (full details below).

Andrew Sparke, Dudley MBC's chief executive and returning officer, said:

'This is an important result as it raises key issues in interpreting postal vote regulations. Postal ballots are becoming increasingly popular and new pilot schemes are being considered for the coming European elections.

'I am pleased Mr Justice Cresswell stated that, as returning officer, I had taken all appropriate steps to ensure the ballot papers were sent out and accepted their late delivery was not the council's fault.

'It was also noted the postal balloting system imposes 'obligations' on voters to take steps to notify the returning officer if their papers are not received by the fourth day before the day of the poll. However the judges did comment that 'Parliament must judge whether that safety net is wide enough'.'

A summary of the case follows:

A candidate who may have lost out in local council elections due to a Royal Mail blunder in which postal votes went missing failed in his legal bid to force a fresh poll.

Martin Knight, representing Labour in the May 1 Dudley MBC poll, challenged the election of triumphant candidate Jill Nicholls on grounds that at least 58 electors received their postal ballot papers too late to vote.

At least 58 voters did not receive their papers until after the poll and at least 52 more only got them on the very day, due to a Royal Mail slip-up, Lo ndon's high court heard.

Mr Knight challenged the election result but, in a unique ruling, had his case dismissed on Friday by Mr Justice Cresswell and Mr Justice Fulford.

The case raised key issues as postal ballots are increasingly in vogue, with new 'pilot' schemes envisaged for coming European elections.

Mr Justice Cresswell granted Mr Knight leave to appeal against the court's rulin g, commenting on 'the importance of the point raised in the context of postal voting'.

Whether the appeal can be heard before the next election is due to in the Belle Vale and Hasbury Ward in June next year remains to be seen.

The judge ordered Mr Knight to pay legal costs bills, estimated at around £50,000, although his solicitor, Gerald Shamash, said the Labour Party would be picking up the tab.

The dispute came to court after Ms Nicholls took the seat by just 40 votes.

Mr Knight's counsel, Gavin Millar QC, said it was accepted by all concerned that the foul-up was the Royal Mail's responsibility, with no blame attributed to the returning officer.

Asked what had gone wrong he replied: 'The clever money is on a faulty sorting machine at one of the Royal Mail offices'. But there was no sure way of knowing exactly how the error happened, he added.

Despite the returning officer's blameless role, Mr Millar still argued he had technically 'omitted' to 'issue' ballot papers to at least 58 voters who were effectively disenfranchised.

But Mr Justice Cresswell said he did not accept arguments that there was a 'strict liability' on a returning officer in such circumstances.

Election rules offered voters a 'safety net' if they had not received their papers by the fourth day before the day of the poll, but it was 'for parliament to judge whether the safety net is wide enough', said the judge.

The returning officer had taken 'all appropriate steps' to ensure that the papers were sent out and their late delivery was in no way his fault .

Mr Justice Fulford observed that the postal balloting system imposes 'obligations' on voters to take steps to notify the authorities if their papers are not received 'by the fourth day before the day of the poll'.

After the hearing, Mr Shamash said the impact of the decision on postal voting could be 'really serious'.

'Things like this may not happen due to the returning officer's error, but it leaves the candidate and disenfranchised voter in a very difficult situation indeed,' he added.

STRAND NEWS SERVICE

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