By-election goes on but Wigan politician gets judicial review

Gareth Fairhurst and Steve Jones outside court
Gareth Fairhurst and Steve Jones outside court

The turmoil over an independent politician’s exit from the chamber shows no sign of ending after a dramatic day in court.

Steve Jones was told by Mr Justice Kerr that he had a very strong case in the judicial review of his departure as an elected representative and the subsequent Bryn by-election announcement.

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However, next week’s vote will go ahead because returning officer Donna Hall, who is also Wigan Council’s chief executive, was not present in court for the interim hearing in Manchester.

Mr Justice Kerr said: “On the question of whether the claimant resigned by written notice, if I had to decide today I would decide without much difficulty he did not.

“I’ve considered carefully in this difficult case. I’ve decided it wouldn’t be practical or fair to expect Ms Hall to attend in the next 24 hours without proper opportunity to take advice in her capacity as returning officer in what is a complicated matter.

“On that narrow ground and with considerable disquiet I will refrain from granting interim relief [to halt the by-election].

"I have grave doubts whether anyone should be voting in Bryn on February 22.”

Mr Justice Kerr also ordered Ms Hall to be made an interested party in the case, saying it was clear decisions made as chief executive and returning officer were in some way linked.

Earlier in his judgement he said Mr Jones’ case, in which he was assisted by former Standish councillor Gareth Fairhurst, “easily passed” the necessary legal test of being arguable in a judicial review.

He suggested a series of emails between Mr Jones and senior town hall officers did not indicate more than an intention to resign on February 20.

Mr Justice Kerr said: “There was no understanding between them at that stage he had intention to relinquish his office any earlier.

“The defendant attributed to them the meaning of resigning with immediate effect. I don’t think this is the sense conveyed.”

The court heard from Wigan Council’s barrister Peter Oldham QC that the claim had not been made promptly enough and was prejudicial to an election as voters had already cast postal votes.

Mr Justice Kerr rejected the argument the application had come too late and said the local authority could have waited for the outcome of legal action Mr Fairhurst had already warned was likely.

Mr Oldham QC also told the court that the case could set a precedent of councillors equivocating and changing their minds over whether they were staying in their roles or not, potentially for a considerable period of time.

The judge ordered all parties involved in the Bryn by-election to receive written notice of his judgement.

The parties will now have to agree a legal timetable for the judicial review to proceed.

However, last night Wigan Council’s chief executive, who is also the borough’s returning officer, remained defiant, insisting Mr Jones had resigned.

She said: “Mr Jones resigned in writing to me and posted his reasons for this on social media and in the press. He subsequently changed his mind.

“A resignation immediately triggers a notice of casual vacancy and this was reported to the council and a by-election was then triggered by two electors of Bryn ward.

“In the interests of democracy my view is that the people of Bryn should have the right to decide who represents them on the council next week.”

Outside Mr Jones remained equally defiant, pointing to the judge’s statement over his disputed resignation.

He said: "I wish to thank all the residents for their massive support and also my girlfriend.

“I would also like to say a massive thanks to Gareth Fairhurst, without him we would not be here today.

“No wonder Wigan Council hate him.

“I said I am still the councillor for Bryn and the judge even said if he had to decide today if I was still the councillor then he would be ruling in my favour.”

A last-ditch bid by Wigan Council’s barrister to get the permission decision referred to the Court of Appeal was refused, with Mr Justice Kerr saying he thought that had no realistic prospect of success.

Both sides also have the chance to put in further evidence, with Wigan Council yet to submit a detailed defence.