General Election 2015 resulted in a Conservative government and it has a working majority in the House of Commons of 17 - (State of Parties). This was rather a surprise at the time since the majority of political commentators expected the outcome to be a "hung Parliament" with the possibility of a further coalition government. As with all General Elections there were some notable political casualties including the UK Independence Party Leader Mr Nigel Farage who lost his seat to Conservative Mr Craig Mackinlay.
The Daily Mail 1st June 2016 reported the decision of District Judge (Magistrates' Courts) Barron at Folkestone Magistrates' Court granting the Kent Police a further 12 months to investigate allegations relating to undeclared, or improperly declared, election expenses in Thanet South during the 2015 General Election. It appears that several other Police Forces are investigating allegations of a similar nature. Here are some media reports of the court's decision:
Isle of Thanet Gazette 1st June 2016
The Guardian 1st June - Judge grants extension to police investigation ....
Daily Mail 1st June - Kent Police given more time to investigate Tory electoral fraud claims
The Telegraph 1st June
5 Essex Court have stated that Dijen Basu QC is to advise the Police in their investigation into the election expenses allegations:-
"The allegations centre on the Conservative Party’s Battlebus2015 campaign, where activists were bussed into key marginals in order to campaign in the 2015 General Election. The constituencies concerned include South Thanet, where Nigel Farage was defeated by the conservative candidate. The Battlebus2015 visited 29 constituencies and the Government’s working majority in the House of Commons is only 17."
Limits are placed on election expenses by the Representation of the People Act 1983 section 76 and returns relating to expenses have to be made of all election expenses incurred by or on behalf of a candidate - section 81.
Section 176 of the same Act states:
"A proceeding against a person in respect of any offence under any provision contained in or made under this Act shall be commenced within one year after the offence was committed ...."
Following amendment by the Electoral Administration Act 2006, the section goes on to permit a magistrates' court to extend the time limit if there are (a) exceptional circumstances which justify the granting of the application, and (b) that there has been no undue delay in the investigation of the offence to which the application relates. Extension of time may be up to a maximum of 24 months after the (alleged) offence was committed.
The District Judge concluded that there were "exceptional circumstances" - media reports note that he said "wholly exceptional". He must have also been satisfied that there was no undue delay in the investigation. Unfortunately, it seems that his detailed reasons are not available at the present time though the Isle of Thanet Gazette 1st June 2016 published a quite extensive report of the hearing.
The granting of this time extension will be the only involvement of the Folkestone Magistrates' Court in this matter unless actual prosecutions are commenced in that locality.
The judge also made an order under section 176 relating to retention of documents - sections 176(2C) and 2D.
Corrupt and Illegal Practices:
The Representation of the People Act 1983 section 173 provides that a person already elected to a seat in the House of Commons but who is convicted of a corrupt or illegal practice shall vacate the seat.
A person convicted of an illegal practice in an election is liable to a fine and is disqualified from voting or from holding any elective office for 3 years from conviction. A person convicted of a corrupt practice is liable to imprisonment for up to a year and is disqualified for 5 years. An MP convicted of either an illegal or corrupt practice must vacate his/her seat, prompting a by-election.
Election Law and the Law Commission:
"Electoral law in the UK has grown complex, voluminous, and fragmented, with many statutes and secondary legislation governing a long list of elections and referendums. The twin aims of the project are to ensure, first, that electoral laws are presented within a rational, modern legislative framework, governing all elections and referendums under statute; and second, that the law governing the conduct of elections and referendums is modern, simple, and fit for purpose."
The Law Commission issued an Interim Report on Electoral Law on 4th February 2016 and made a considerable number of recommendations (see Appendix A to the report). When announcing the Interim Report, the Law Commission noted that the three Law Commissions (i.e. Law Commission, Scottish Law Commission and Northern Ireland Law Commission) -
"are recommending that the process for challenging elections should be modernised, making it easier for parties to understand and use, and that judges be given the power, in appropriate cases, to limit the potential costs for challengers. They also recommend that existing electoral offences should be updated and made easier for the electorate, officials and prosecutors to understand, and that the maximum sentence for serious electoral offences be increased to ten years."
Chapter 12 of the Interim Report looks at Election Expenditure.
Response from Government to the Commission's report is awaited.