Aldermen's court must explain its decision

LAW REPORT v 27 September 1995 Regina v Corporation of London and another, ex parte Matson; Court of Appeal (Lord Justice Neill, Lord Justice Waite and Lord Justice Swinton-Thomas) 18 August 1995

The Court of Aldermen of the City of London was under a duty to give reasons when deciding whether or not to ratify the election of an alderman.

The Court of Appeal unanimously allowed an appeal by Malcolm Matson against the refusal of Mr Justice Latham, on 16 March 1995, to grant his application for judicial review to quash the decision of the Court of Aldermen, on 6 December 1994, not to confirm Mr Matson's election as an alderman. The matter was remitted for reconsideration by the Court of Aldermen with a direction to give reasons.

Lord Lester QC and Anthony White (Clifford Chance) for Mr Matson; Jeremy Sullivan QC, Richard Price, and M. Hunt (A.J. Colvin, Comptroller & City Solicitor) for the Corporation of London.

Lord Justice Neill said the City of London was the only municipal corporation still to retain the office of alderman, which was of Anglo-Saxon origin and had always been one of some importance and dignity. The 25 aldermen took part in each of the three assemblies which controlled the City's functions: the Court of Aldermen, the Court of Common Council and the Common Hall. They also sat as magistrates and from their number were chosen both the Sheriff and Lord Mayor of London.

The election of an alderman in the City of London took place in two stages: first, an election by the voters at a wardmote; second, confirmation by the Court of Aldermen. The first stage was statutorily recognised as a "local government election" by virtue of section 191(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983; but the second stage remained customary and applied regardless of whether the fitness and qualification of an elected alderman had been called into question by the petition of an interested person.

On 7 November 1994 a wardmote was held to elect an alderman for the ward of Bread Street, the previous incumbent having resigned. There were two candidates. A poll was held on 8 November and Mr Matson was elected by 54 votes to 15, having received 78 per cent of the votes cast on a turnout of 57 per cent.

He was summoned and duly appeared before the Court of Aldermen on 6 December 1994. No petition or motion to reject had been presented to the court and Mr Matson had not been given notice of any matter on which he might be asked questions. After he had been introduced, the court conferred in private for about 45 minutes. He was then interviewed for about 40 minutes, being asked questions about his involvement in a recent election of common councilmen, about his platform for election, about his businesses and about his charity work. The court then held a secret ballot: there were 17 votes against his admission, one in favour and one abstention. The Lord Mayor then informed Mr Matson that the court was unable to confirm his election.

The applicant complained both as to the decision itself, which he said was perverse, and as to the failure to give reasons.

In his Lordship's judgment, it was appropriate that before an alderman's election was confirmed the Court of Aldermen should consider not only whether there were any matters which told against him but also whether his experience, attainments and personal qualities fitted him for this exacting role.

On the limited information available, given the lack of reasons, it was impossible to say that the decision of the Court of Aldermen was flawed for procedural unfairness. The procedure laid down in the Orders and Rules was followed and the question of Mr Matson's suitability occupied the court's attention for a considerable time. Nor could the decision be said to be ex facie unreasonable.

However, fairness and natural justice required that this decision should not be allowed to go unexplained. Mr Matson was standing for public office in which he wished to serve his constituents and the City of London. He was democratically elected by a substantial majority. In the absence of reasons, he could not know the basis for his rejection or whether he should stand again.

The Court of Aldermen was a court of record whose decision was announced in public. The giving of reasons would not frustrate its exercise of customary powers. On the contrary, it would enable the court to ensure its decisions were manifestly just and in the interests of the City.

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