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High Court gives judgment in Welsh Councillor misconduct case

DATE: 15 May 2014

The High Court (Hickinbottom J.) today gave judgment in Heesom v Public Services Ombudsman for Wales [2014] EWHC 1504 (Admin). This was an appeal under s. 79(15) of the Local Government Act 2000, the Administrative Court heard the case in Mold.

A Case Tribunal of the Adjudication Panel for Wales found that the Appellant had committed 14 breaches of the Clwyd County Council’s Codes of Conduct by failing to show respect and consideration for Council officers, using bullying behaviour, attempting to compromise the impartiality of officers and conducting himself in a manner likely to bring his office or the Council into disrepute.  In terms of sanction, the tribunal disqualified the Appellant from being a member of the Council or of any other local authority for 2 years 6 months.

On appeal the Appellant argued: (i) The case tribunal erred in adopting the wrong standard of proof, i.e. the civil as opposed to the criminal standard; (ii) The case tribunal erred in its findings as to breaches of the Codes of Conduct; and (iii) Insofar as its findings of breach were properly made, the case tribunal erred in finding that they were such as to justify the sanction imposed.

The Judge indicated that the appeal thus gives rise to the following important issues: (i) the appropriate standard of proof in an adjudication by a case tribunal of the Adjudication Panel for Wales; and (ii) the scope of and legitimate restrictions to a politician’s right of freedom of expression under article 10 of the European Convention for on Human Rights and at common law, particularly in relation to civil servants’ rights and interests which might be adversely affected by the purported exercise of those rights.  The case also considered the impact on the Welsh system of the abolition of the similar regime in England, effected by the Localism Act 2011.

The appeal failed in respect of the challenges made to almost all of the findings of breach.

On sanction the Court ruled that the case tribunal did not err in principle or approach; however it regarded the sanction as excessive and set it aside replacing it with a disqualification of 18 months. The Judge concluded that no sanction short of disqualification would have been appropriate and that, in view of the seriousness of the misconduct, disqualification was an appropriate response.

A copy of the judgment can be found here.

James Maurici QC appeared for the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales (leading Gwydion Hughes of 9 Park Place).

Gwion Lewis acted for the Welsh Ministers (Interveners) by way of written submissions only.