Britain may be forced to lift its ban on political advertising when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rules on its lawfulness tomorrow.
The issue came to court after the campaign group Animal Defenders International (ADI) was told it could not run adverts highlighting the plight of caged primates. Because the organisation was not a charity, it was treated as a political group. ADI said this was a breach of its right to freedom of expression and appealed against the decision. The final ruling in its attempts to overturn the ban on its adverts will be handed down tomorrow.
If ADI is successful, the Government will have to amend the laws regarding political advertising or even lift the ban altogether, allowing all groups and parties to campaign on the airwaves.
The ECHR has overturned similar bans in Norway and Switzerland. Jacob Rowbottom, a fellow in constitutional law at University College, Oxford, said: "It seems very likely that they will find the complete blanket ban on paid political advertising to violate [freedom of expression]."
The Tory MP George Eustice, who has called for changes in the political broadcast systems, said: "We do have some of the most draconian restrictions on broadcast political advertising in the free world. It shouldn't be beyond the wit of man to improve the situation beyond what it is now but also maintain safeguards so that you didn't have a system where cheque books buy access to the broadcast medium."
A spokesperson from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport maintained that the ban was necessary: "The ban has wide support and has helped sustain the balance of views which is at the heart of British broadcasting – and ensures that advertising broadcast into our homes is not determined by those who have the deepest pockets."
The former solicitor general Sir Edward Garnier agreed: "We would be uncomfortable in England filling up our screens with aggressive political campaign advertising. You could say it's a restriction of free speech, but it's one the British are prepared to tolerate to keep political advertising off their screens."