Phil Woolas legal challenge sees election put on hold

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A by-election to replace a former minister stripped of his Commons seat for lying about an opponent was put on hold today pending a legal challenge which has been fast-tracked by a judge.

Phil Woolas's application for judicial review of an Election Court's decision to void his narrow general election victory is expected to be heard in the High Court later this week.

His lawyers renewed the challenge after Mr Justice Silber refused an initial application on the grounds that judicial review was not the appropriate legal recourse.

The High Court judge said though that he would order an "expedited" oral hearing as he considered it "essential" that voters in the constituency knew who their MP was.

Labour, which has suspended Mr Woolas and refused to support his appeal, backed a "pause" in calling a fresh poll amid fears Oldham East and Saddleworth could end up with two MPs.

But the Liberal Democrats, whose narrowly-defeated candidate Elwyn Watkins brought the rare case, suggested voters could end up unrepresented "indefinitely" if the case dragged on.

Mr Watkins said a delay of "weeks or months" would be unacceptable.

And senior MPs from both sides of the House said Friday's court judgment raised "enormous" constitutional issues and risked curtailing proper debate and unleashing a slew of challenges.

Mr Woolas was stripped of his seat and banned from standing for election for three years by the specially-convened Election Court in the first such judgment for 99 years.

It heard he stirred up racial tensions in a desperate bid to retain his seat which he eventually won by 103 votes.

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman has indicated that Mr Woolas has no future as a Labour MP even if he succeeds in overturning the ruling because lies had "no place" in its campaigning.

Commons Speaker John Bercow formally announced the court's decision to MPs this afternoon but said it could not be discussed as the legal challenge made it sub judice under Commons rules.

His statement was seen as a signal to political parties that a by-election should be delayed and shadow Commons leader Hilary Benn confirmed that Labour backed a "pause".

It was not only "proper that these proceedings are allowed to conclude", he said, but important not to elect another MP for the seat while Mr Woolas could still be reinstated.

"So it seems to me that the prudent and practical course of action is to allow the legal process to be concluded before the House considers the matter of the writ."

Commons leader Sir George Young said he backed the Speaker's stance but Liberal Democrat spokesman Alistair Carmichael asked for assurances for voters in the seat "that they will not be denied indefinitely, by untested legal proceedings, the representation to which they are entitled".

Mr Bercow pointed to the decision to fast-track the judicial review hearing but it remains unclear what the parties would do should the legal proceedings become prolonged.

Mr Watkins said it would be wrong if the election was delayed "by weeks or months".

"I think the Speaker has taken the appropriate decision but we are ready for the by-election whenever it comes," he told BBC Radio 4's PM programme.

"What would certainly not be acceptable would be a delay of weeks or months. But if it is a question of a short period of time then everyone is entitled to proper legal process."

Mr Woolas was found guilty of illegal practices under election law over comments made in his campaign material that Mr Watkins tried to "woo" the votes of Muslims who advocated violence and that he had refused to condemn extremists who advocated violence against the Labour ex-minister.

Judges ruled that, although made in the context of an election campaign, they clearly amounted to attacks on his opponent's "personal character or conduct" and Mr Woolas had "no reasonable grounds for believing them to be true and did not believe them to be true".

Mr Justice Silber said the decisions of High Court judges sitting in their capacity as High Court judges were not subject to judicial review.

It was also a "remedy of last resort" that should not be used if there was an alternative - which Mr Woolas had in the form of an appeal to the Court of Appeal, he said in his initial ruling.

His interpretation was challenged though by Mr Woolas's solicitor Gerald Shamash.

"We think he has got it wrong," he said.

Tory MP Edward Leigh and Labour's David Winnick demanded a Commons debate about the "enormous constitutional issues" raised by the judgment - saying it was for voters to kick out MPs.

"It is for the people to evict Members of Parliament, not the judges," Mr Leigh said.

"What worries me about this is, if this is allowed to stand then it will become virtually impossible that there be really robust debate during elections."

Mr Winnick said he feared beaten candidates would in future use "any means" to claim an unfair campaign had been fought.