Judges commenting on public policy-postal votes

Posted on 13 March 2014 (Permalink)

In view of the outspoken political comments against postal voting by Justice Richard Mawrey, I have written to him and to the Chairman of the Judges Council Mr Justice Pill, requesting an explanation and asking what action he intends to take.


Dear Justice Mawrey,


Under the heading Scrap 'on demand' postal voting to curb fraud, says judge , andPostal voting is open to fraud on an "industrial scale" and is "unviable" in its current form, a top judge has said.” http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26520836 It continues “Richard Mawrey QC, who tries cases of electoral fraud, told the BBC that people should not be able to apply for postal votes as a matter of course. "On demand" postal voting had not boosted turnout or simplified the process for the vulnerable, he said.Mr Mawrey, a deputy High Court judge and election commissioner, said in one case last year he had come across 14 different ways that postal ballots could be manipulated. "Postal voting on demand, however many safeguards you build into it, is wide open to fraud," he told Radio 4's Today."And it's open to fraud on a scale that will make election rigging a possibility and indeed in some areas a probability." Furthermore, he suggested postal voting had not achieved its other stated objectives, such as increasing turnout or helping particularly vulnerable groups who might find voting difficult to do it more easily."All it actually does is create a convenience for members of the public who would rather fill in something in their own home.


Political assertion without evidence would be especially disconcerting if it comes from a senior member of the Judiciary. However I am aware that the media often misquote and look forward to you correcting the record if that is so .If however these quotes are accurately attributed we would find them a matter of serious concern.


In your comments today on the Today programme about electoral fraud you  said that people should not be able to apply for postal votes as a matter of course. These comments can be seen as highly partisan and controversial since the consequence would be to reduce the chances of millions who currently use postal votes to participate in our democracy. Given your position as an Election Commissioner and a deputy High Court judge who tries cases of electoral fraud and that you have to judge impartially and without prejudice in these cases I feel these are inappropriate comments on matters of public policy, and you are entering a highly contentious part of the political arena. All fraud is a serious matter however the exclusive focus you give to this handful of cases while ignoring the scandal of the millions who are not registered to vote or who do not participate seems a wholly disproportionate and biased response.


The guide to Judicial Conduct recommends that Judges exercise their freedom to talk to the media with “the greatest circumspection” (para 8.1.1)  In particular, a judge should refrain from answering public criticism of a judgment, whether from the bench or otherwise.  Judges should not air disagreements over judicial decisions in the press.  Judicial contribution to public debate is unobjectionable provided the issue directly affects the operation of the courts, the independence of the judiciary or aspects of the administration of justice. The guidance also warns of “the risk of different judges expressing conflicting views in debate...in that a public conflict between judges, expressed out of court, may bring the judiciary into disrepute and diminish the authority of the court.” (para 8.2.3)  It will almost always be desirable for a judge to consult with Heads of Division, the presiding, resident or designated judge before contributing to a public debate.  The judge should be alive to the risk of expressing views that will give rise to issues of bias or pre-judgment in cases that later come before the judge.

Since postal votes are unlikely to be seen as an issue directly affecting aspects of the administration of justice, I will be writing to Mr Justice Pill, Chairman of the Judges’ Council to ask what action he intends to take and if and when you consulted with the  Head of Division as these comments seem ill-advised given your  position as a deputy High Court Judge and Election Commissioner. I would appreciate your response,


Graham Allen MP Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee