Northern Ireland

Jolene Bunting fails in legal bid to remove three year ban on seeking re-election quashed

Jolene Bunting. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Jolene Bunting. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire. Jolene Bunting. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire.

A former Belfast City Councillor has failed in a High Court bid to have her three-year disqualification from seeking re-election quashed.

Jolene Bunting was banned from holding the office for a breach of the code of conduct following a complaint from the leader of far-right party Britain First.

Ms Bunting claimed the sanction had been unfairly imposed following a local government watchdog hearing where she feared the prospect of cross-examining Paul Golding without having legal representation.

But a judge ruled that her request for an adjournment was reasonably denied at a tribunal where appropriate safeguards were available.

Dismissing Ms Bunting’s judicial review challenge, Mr Justice Scoffield said: “The decision not to participate in the proceedings at all was a matter of choice on the part of the applicant. 

“She was at liberty to do so and the decision to proceed with the hearing in all of the circumstances outlined above was not, in my view, unfair.”

In February this year the Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards (NILGCS) found that the former independent unionist councillor breached the code of conduct by doctoring a payslip in a bid to obtain cash from Britain First.

Mr Golding claimed the party sent her money to cover an alleged fine from Belfast City Council for a publicity stunt involving its former deputy leader, Jayda Fransen.

Ms Fransen had been filmed making a statement while wearing robes and sitting in the lord mayor’s chair at City Hall in 2018.

But the tribunal was told that a £545 deduction in Ms Bunting’s council pay was actually because she had exceeded the data allowance on her mobile phone.

The watchdog held that she improperly used her position to secure financial advantage by amending her payslip to gain from Mr Golding and Britain First, bringing her position as a councillor into disrepute.

Ms Bunting denied the allegations throughout the adjudication and also made a last-ditch attempt to halt the proceedings.

She challenged a refusal by NILGCS to grant her an adjournment in order to secure lawyers for the hearing.

Ms Bunting wanted the three-year disqualification order quashed and the case remitted for a fresh adjudication process before the next council elections in May.

The court heard she had been unfairly expected to represent herself without any lawyers.

Referring to Mr Golding as someone who had caused her “great consternation and anxiety” for a number of years, she claimed to be “genuinely in fear” of him.

Ms Bunting stated that she was not ready to face the Britain First leader, let alone engage with him.

On the day of the tribunal she tried unsuccessfully for more than half an hour to join remotely in order to seek an adjournment.

With no previous concerns for her personal safety raised, Mr Justice Scoffield highlighted the available safeguards, including remote facilities to ensure she was not in the same room as Mr Golding. 

This would have afforded Ms Bunting a degree of protection and reassurance equivalent to what courts can provide by way of special measures,” he pointed out.

Rejecting further grounds of challenge, the judge confirmed: “I have not been satisfied that it was unfair to the applicant for her not to be afforded the opportunity to advance her adjournment application orally.”

Ms Bunting could still pursue an alternative appeal remedy against the NILGCS adjudication.

However, Mr Justice Scoffield advised: “In the event that she wishes to do so, it may be sensible for that to be dealt with by a judge of the High Court other than myself.”