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Modern legal framework needed for UK elections

07 Feb Modern legal framework needed for UK elections

Simplified legislation will make it easier for candidates and voters to challenge election results

The UK is in need of a modern legal framework to govern the conduct of elections and referendums, according to a new interim report published today.

The Law Commissions of England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have recommended the process for challenging elections should be modernised, making it easier for parties to understand and use, and that judges be given the power to limit the potential costs for challengers.

UK electoral law is spread across 40 Acts – dating back to 1700 – and over 100 secondary pieces of legislation.

The law governing how election results can be challenged has hardly altered since 1868. The law only allows rival candidates and voters to bring a challenge and to do so they must incur costs running to many thousands of pounds and comply with onerous procedural rules.

Richard Mawrey QC, a leading election lawyer who decides on election challenges, has previously stated that this is an unsatisfactory system to protect the UK’s democracy.

The interim report also recommended that existing electoral offences be updated and made easier for the electorate, officials, and prosecutors to understand. The maximum sentence for serious offences should be increased to ten years, the commissions suggested.

Some electoral offences date back to the 19th century and are outdated with language that is no longer relevant, such as the offence of ‘treating’, which prohibits giving any ‘meat, drink, or entertainment’.

Fear of electoral fraud has grown over recent years following several high-profile cases, such as the former mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman.

Nicholas Paines QC, Law Commissioner for public law at the Law Commission of England and Wales, said: ‘Electoral law must be simplified, modernised and rationalised so that it can be more easily understood and used by administrators and candidates, and the public can have more certainty as to their rights.

‘The law must be set out in such a way that policy development by government, once properly scrutinised by parliament, can be achieved by one legislative change, rather than a dozen spread out across several years.

‘We are pleased to make these recommendations for reform and are hopeful that this opportunity to make electoral law more principled and efficient will be taken forward.’

Chairman of the Scottish Law Commission, Lord Pentland, said that inconsistencies and ambiguities risked undermining the credibility of the electoral process.

‘It has become essential for electoral law throughout the UK to be streamlined and put into a modern, accessible, and user-friendly format that is fit for the 21st century.’

The Hon Mr Justice Maguire, chairman of the Northern Ireland Law Commission, added: ‘The laws governing elections in Northern Ireland suffer equally from being spread out across different statutes and secondary legislation. In some cases older instruments are difficult for the public, or even legal professionals, to access.

‘We are very pleased to recommend that the laws governing elections in Northern Ireland should be set out within a single and consistent legal framework and look forward to hearing the UK government’s response.’

Bob Posner, director of party and election finance and legal counsel at the Electoral Commission welcomed the report: ‘During recent decades these laws have grown complex, unwieldy and out of date, which has made it more difficult to administer and take part in elections.

‘It’s important that the UK and Scottish governments now agree that the Law Commissions can move onto the crucial next phase of their work to prepare draft legislation.’

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