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Judgment reserved in case over disqualification of councillor and free speech

The High Court has reserved judgment in a case where a councillor in Wales has sought to challenge – on the basis of his right to free expression as an elected politician – his disqualification for two-and-a-half years.

Councillor Patrick Heesom represented the Mostyn ward on Flintshire County Council. He was also leader of the largest political group in the authority.

The Adjudication Panel for Wales received a referral from the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales in July 2010. A number of allegations were made against the councillor.

A tribunal began hearing the case in January 2011 and sat for a total of 58 days before concluding its adjudication in July 2013. The tribunal said the timescale in part reflected a 12-month period where the councillor suffered from ill health.

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The tribunal found 14 breaches of the council’s 2001 and 2008 codes of conduct. These breaches included a “failure to show respect and consideration for others”, “conduct which compromises, or which is likely to compromise, the impartiality of the authority’s employees”, “bringing the office of member or the authority into disrepute”, “failure to show respect and consideration for others”, and “using bullying behaviour or harassing any person”.

A number of the breaches related to the councillor’s dealings with officers of Flintshire.

The tribunal noted that in the Calver case comments were made that politicians were expected to have broader shoulders than other members of the public and they were subject to another’s expression of his freedom of speech.

“In certain circumstances we could see that this could be applied to the most senior officers of a local authority if said in the right context and circumstances,” it said.

“We would note, however, it would be necessary also to have regard to the fact that an elected councillor is in effect a quasi-employer of that senior official.”

The tribunal, which rejected a number of other allegations made against Cllr Heesom, disqualified him for two and a half years from being or becoming a member of Flintshire or any other relevant authority within the meaning of the Local Government Act 2000.

The councillor sought to challenge the disqualification in the Administrative Court. Mr Justice Hickinbottom heard the case over four days in Mold, North Wales.

Cllr Heesom argued that his disqualification interfered with the rights of his electorate as well as his own.

He also claimed that it was disproportionate given the protection granted by the common law and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights to the political expression of elected representatives. 

The Welsh Government was given permission to intervene in the case and make submissions in defence of the standards regime in Wales.

Howe & Co instructed Mark Henderson and David Lemer of Doughty Street Chambers for Cllr Heesom.

The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales instructed James Maurici QC of Landmark Chambers and Gwydion Hughes of 9 Park Place for the Respondent, and the Welsh Ministers instructed Gwion Lewis of Landmark Chambers for the Intervener. 

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