High Court allows councillor’s free speech appeal against 2 ½ years disqualification from elected office

In a judgment handed down on 15 May 2014, the High Court has allowed a major free speech by a senior county councillor against  the decision of the Adjudication Panel for Wales (APW) to disqualify him from elected office for 2 ½ years. Mark Henderson and David Lemer acted for Cllr Patrick Heesom in Heesom v Public Services Ombudsman for Wales (PSOW), Welsh Ministers intervening [2014] EWHC 1504 (Admin). He had been leader of the largest political group on Flintshire County Council, to which he had been consistently re-elected for two decades. The appeal to the High Court relied on the strength of an elected politician’s right to free expression under the common law and Article 10. The Welsh Government was, exceptionally, granted permission to intervene to explain the standards regime in Wales.

 

The sanction imposed by the APW, which has now been quashed by the High Court, concluded more than four years of statutory proceedings, commenced by the PSOW. The appeal from the APW’s decision was heard over four days in the Administrative Court by Hickinbottom J, sitting specially in Mold, North Wales, the county seat.

 

The sanction was imposed for breaches of the Code of Conduct (which Welsh councillors are statutorily required to sign) by “bullying”, “bringing the office of member and the Authority into disrepute”, and “failure to show respect and consideration”. The breaches related to the way he challenged and criticised officers for their management of council services and the way that he pressed his constituents’ cases within the council.

 

In the High Court, Cllr Heesom contended that disqualification for 2 ½ years was disproportionate given the high protection granted by the common law and Article 10 to the political expression of elected representatives.

 

The High Court quashed three of the APW’s findings of breach of the Code of Conduct and allowed the appeal against sanction, substantially reducing the disqualification. Hickinbottom J concluded that “mindful of the requirement of article 10 to impose the minimum sanction consistent with the aims of maintaining standards in public life, I have come to the view that a period of disqualification of 2 years and 6 months was excessive, and manifestly so”.

 

The judgment emphasised the importance of the protection of free speech for elected representatives, the enhanced protection which applies to “political expression”, and that “the enhanced protection applies to all levels of politics including local [government]”. The Court held that “the scope of ‘political expression’ is particularly wide” and that the APW was wrong to hold that Cllr Heesom’s objections to appointment processes within the council “fell outside the very generous bounds of political expression”.

 

Howe & Co instructed Mark Henderson and David Lemer for the Appellant. The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales instructed James Maurici QC and Gwydion Hughes for the Respondent, and the Welsh Ministers instructed Gwion Lewis for the Intervener. 

     

Click here for the Judgment on appeal.

 

Media coverage of the appeal:

 

BBC 

 

Daily Post

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