Former councillor to pay almost £50,000 after unsuccessful High Court challenge

A former Hartlepool councillor will have to pay almost £50,000 in legal fees after an unsuccessful High Court challenge to void a result in the May 2021 local elections.

Laura Love

The hearing took place following a petition from Bob Buchan over claims of damaging information in Labour’s campaign material shortly before the 2021 local elections.

Mr Buchan, who previously represented the Independent Union on the borough council, missed out on being one of three councillors elected in the Fens and Greatham ward to Labour’s Jennifer Elliott by 609 votes to 619.

After hearing evidence on Thursday, judge Philip Kramer on Friday concluded the statement in the election material related to “political conduct and character”, rather than a “personal” attack, and ruled in favour of Cllr Elliott.

He said: “The exercise of a vote in committee is a political act, the councillor is discharging a political function.

“Politicians are entrusted to take these decisions on the public’s behalf and when they discharge that trust, they are undertaking a political act, which is correctly characterised as political conduct.”

The defence submitted legal costs of just under £79,000 to the court, with the judge ruling Mr Buchan must pay just over £48,000 of this, after questioning and analysing the fees.

Speaking at the hearing Mr Buchan, said he had kept his legal costs to “about £3,500” and noted he will have to seek “support from family and friends” to pay the defence’s fees.

Speaking after the result, Mr Buchan said: “I’m naturally disappointed with the outcome of this case.

“The reason I brought this case in the first place is that Jennifer had informed 700 residents in the village I voted in favour of a controversial development, when it has now been proven in open court and accepted by Jennifer that this was not true.

“I am astounded that the defence team asked for almost £79,000 and I’m grateful for the judge for slashing the bill down by almost £30,000.”

The fees must be paid within 28 days, however Mr Buchan was told he can make a request to pay in instalments.

The case revolved around a Labour campaign letter just days before the May local elections, which claimed Mr Buchan had voted in favour of a controversial development for 18 council homes in Hill View, in Greatham, which was approved in January 2021.

The former councillor reiterated he was not at the meeting when plans were approved, and voted against a similar previous application in July 2020.

Judge Kramer ruled there was “no dispute” Mr Buchan did not vote in favour, as he was not present at the meeting .

During the hearing, Cllr Elliott had said it was an “honest mistake” in stating Mr Buchan had voted for the application.

However Mr Buchan had said he felt there had been an “attack on his reputation and good standing in the community” with the comments made in election material.

Speaking after the case, Cllr Elliott said she was “very pleased” with the court’s ruling and she is now focused on continuing to “fight for the residents of Fens and Greatham”.

She said: “I would like to thank all those who have supported me through a stressful and unpleasant time.

“I am looking forward to getting back to what really matters.”

Judge Kramer, speaking at the start of proceedings, had said if Mr Buchan had been successful, the result of the election would have been “void” and “have to be rerun”.