High Court rejects challenge over refusal to investigate DUP referendum spending

DUP Leader Arlene Foster. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/Press Association
Sian Harrison, Press Association

A legal challenge over the Electoral Commission's refusal to investigate EU referendum spending by the DUP has been rejected by a High Court judge.

The Good Law Project (GLP) argued the commission should have taken action over allegations the DUP breached electoral law in relation to its campaign expenses in the run-up to the UK's historic vote to leave the EU in June 2016.

But, refusing to grant a full judicial review, Mr Justice Stuart-Smith said on Thursday that the case was "premature".

The judge said the commission's decision to wait until the Court of Appeal has ruled on a challenge to a High Court decision concerning Vote Leave's spending was "proper and proportionate".

He said: "If it conducts further investigations now... it runs the risk that its efforts and expenditure will be wasted if the Court of Appeal takes a different view."

GLP claims there were "apparent contraventions of electoral law" as the pro-Brexit DUP appeared to have accepted "substantial donations" from an association called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC).

The group also says that expenses declared by the DUP, including £282,000 on advertising in the Metro newspaper, appear in fact to have been incurred by the CRC – which did not register as a participant in the referendum.

GLP previously won a judicial review against the commission, arguing it failed in its duty to regulate the referendum process in relation to expenses incurred by Vote Leave.

Vote Leave paid £620,000 to Canadian online advertising firm AggregateIQ (AIQ) at the request of Darren Grimes, another leave campaigner, in the days before the referendum.

This put Vote Leave over its £7 million election spending limit by almost £500,000.

GLP launched a case in October 2017, after the Electoral Commission concluded there were "no reasonable grounds to suspect" any incorrect reporting of campaign spending or donations by Vote Leave.

The commission later opened an investigation into the spending of Vote Leave and Mr Grimes and concluded in July that both had incorrectly reported their spending.

Vote Leave was fined £61,000 and Mr Grimes was handed a £20,000 fine by the commission, which referred the matter to the Metropolitan Police.

Two High Court judges ruled in September last year that the commission had "misinterpreted" the definition of referendum expenses in relation to the Vote Leave campaign.

The commission has launched a challenge against the ruling at the Court of Appeal and is awaiting the outcome.

Mr Justice Stuart-Smith said it is "inevitable" the commission will have to review its position following the Court of Appeal ruling.

He said that, if the court upholds the High Court ruling and the commission then decides not to investigate DUP spending, that decision would be open to a fresh challenge at that stage.

However he said the current legal action is "premature".

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