A London borough is facing a judicial review challenge over its decision that a petition calling for a referendum on changes to its governance arrangements was invalid.
In September campaigners said they had reached the required number of signatures – 11,100 or 5% of the Newham electorate – on the petition, which calls for a move from the current directly elected mayor and cabinet model to a leader and cabinet model.
However, the council decided that amendments made by Coronavirus legislation to the regulations governing petitions required it to invalidate the petition as it was received between 16 March 2020 and 5 May 2021. The amendments to the petition regulations prohibited the presentation of petitions in this period, it argued.
At its meeting last Wednesday (21 October) full council at Newham voted to commit the authority to a referendum on 6 May 2021 when voters will be offered a choice between the directly elected mayor model and a committee model.
This fulfilled Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz’s 2018 election pledge to hold a referendum on having a directly elected mayor by 2021, the council said, and was “amongst a range of measures designed to increase the role of residents in decision making; embed principles of participatory democracy and bolster the role of councillors, and put ‘People Power’ at the heart of local democracy in Newham”. A standing citizens’ assembly will be trialled from May 2021 for a year.
An advice note to members from the council’s chief executive and monitoring officer revealed that in the run up to the full council meeting Democracy Newham Limited had applied to the High Court for an injunction to require the council to validate its petition by 18 October and also to prevent full council from making a decision at its meeting on 21 October to hold a governance referendum.
After correspondence between the council and Democracy Newham’s solicitors, that application was withdrawn.
On Monday 21 October Democracy Newham made its application for a judicial review in a bid to overturn the council’s decision on its petition and require the council to take steps to validate it.
The advice note said that the claimant was arguing that the local authority’s interpretation of the law on whether it was required to invalidate the petition was incorrect.
It added: “The Council will be defending the application on the grounds that its interpretation and application of the law is correct.”
On 22 October Mr Justice Chamberlain made directions about the timetable for the progress of the case.
The advice note from the chief executive and monitoring officer said: “This is a standard procedure and, for members information, the Court ordered dates for the Council to serve its defence and that an initial hearing whether or not to grant permission for the claim to go forward to take place as soon as possible after 10 November. Any application for judicial review requires permission to be heard at a full hearing. No other decision was made by the Court.
“Both the Council and Claimant agree that the matter should be heard quickly.”
The advice note said it was hoped that the case is heard in November but that it might well take place in December. “Any later and we start to run into the period when we take significant practical steps to administer the referendum.”