The High Court has today found that the Labour Party treated Chris Williamson MP unfairly, and therefore unlawfully, when overturning a previous decision of an Anti-Semitism Panel not to refer Mr Williamson to the Party’s National Constitutional Committee (NCC). The Court concluded that there was no proper basis for the Labour Party’s decision, which had been influenced by legally impermissible and improper considerations.
On 26 June 2019, as widely reported in the press, an Anti-Semitism Panel (a sub-Panel of the Labour Party’s Disputes Panel) decided that the allegations made against Mr Williamson MP did not justify a referral to the NCC, and instead issued a written warning.
However, two days later, following an outcry from other Labour MPs and in the press, the General Secretary and Defendant in the proceedings, Jennie Formby, decided to refer that decision to a full Disputes Panel, purportedly due to concerns regarding the health of a panel member, Keith Vaz MP, and breaches of confidentiality regarding the decision-making process. On 9 July 2019, the full Disputes Panel overturned the decision of 26 June 2019 and referred the matter to another Anti-Semitism Panel. That Panel decided on 19 July 2019 to refer the matter to the NCC.
In the absence of any right of appeal within the Labour Party rules, Mr Williamson brought the matter before the Court, and following a hearing on 12 September, the Court has today found that the decision of 9 July was so unfair as to be unlawful and therefore that the decision of 19 July 2019 cannot stand. Accordingly, the Court has confirmed that the relevant allegations cannot be referred by the Labour Party to the NCC.
In particular, the Court found that:
a) the Labour Party had failed to follow the rules in this case and “the evidence indicates that in practice the rules are not strictly followed”;
b) the Labour Party’s evidence on the health of Keith Vaz MP (which did not even include a statement from Mr Vaz or other panel members) was “unsatisfactory” and that “it would be surprising if, as an experienced Parliamentarian, Mr Vaz: (a) had taken part in an important meeting if he felt himself unfit to do so; and (b) then failed clearly to make that point in his subsequent email [to Ms Formby]”;
c) “breach of confidence was not of itself a proper reason for reopening the decision”; and
d) if the Labour Party wanted to argue that reopening the decision could have been justified because it was “mired by political interference, or the appearance of political interference”, as advanced for the first time at the hearing, then “it should have filed evidence dealing with the point”.
Consequently, the Court concluded that “it is not… difficult to infer that the true reason for the decision in this case was that members were influenced by the ferocity of the outcry following the June decision”. Moreover, contrary to the submissions of the Labour Party that it was appropriate to take account of such outcry in a disciplinary matter, the Court found that:
the NEC should decide cases fairly and impartially in accordance with the rules and evidence; and not be influenced by how its decision are seen by others. Internal and press reaction to a decision are not of themselves proper grounds for reopening a case that was not otherwise procedurally unfair or obviously wrong.
Shortly before the hearing, the Labour Party raised further allegations against Mr Williamson and suspended him again despite the fact he was already suspended. This decision was also challenged in the proceedings, but the Court took the view that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the Labour Party acted unfairly in respect of the second suspension. Whether to pursue the matter is now in the hands of the Labour Party.
Chris Williamson MP said:
I welcome the Court’s recognition of the unfair manner in which I have been treated by the Labour Party in this process. I have been a member of the Labour Party for almost 44 years and I have had the privilege of serving in elected office for my party for over 28 years, first as a councillor and then as a Member of Parliament. I never expected, nor wanted, to be in a position where I was forced to take legal action against the party to which I have devoted my life. However, after months of personal distress and emotional turmoil for my family, caused by an inherent unfairness and arbitrariness built into the Labour Party’s disciplinary procedures, I was left with no other choice. I expect that this will be the first step in wholesale reform of the Labour Party’s disciplinary process, that any unfairness done to others can be corrected, and that I can be treated fairly and lawfully by the Party in the future.
I’m grateful to the thousands of people who have generously contributed to enable me to take my case to the High Court. I will continue to fight to clear my name and also on behalf of others that have suffered, or who in the future suffer injustice in the Labour Party disciplinary process. I expect the party to now lift my suspension.
Jamie Potter, Partner in the Public Law and Human Rights team at Bindmans, and solicitor for Mr Williamson MP, said:
The Labour Party purported to overturn the first decision regarding Mr Williamson on the basis it was necessary to protect the integrity of its disciplinary processes; instead they have demonstrated that their approach to disciplinary matters to date has been fundamentally flawed. Even the Labour Party’s own legal team considered it appropriate for a disciplinary body to take into account public opinion. The Court has today confirmed that is fundamentally wrong, while also finding more generally that the Party has failed to comply with its own procedures as a matter of normal practice. We cannot know how many other disciplinary decisions of the Party are also flawed for these or similar reasons. The only appropriate step for the Party is now to commission a completely independent investigation of the disciplinary process, with a view to establishing a properly fair and independent process.