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Phil Woolas rails against 'chilling effect' of court decision on free speech

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Former Labour immigration minister Phil Woolas appeared at the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) in London yesterday to commence judicial review action against a decision to bar him from public office.

Earlier this month, a specially convened election court found that Woolas contravened section 106 of the Representation of the People Act during the 2010 Oldham East and Saddleworth general election contest by unreasonably making untrue statements about his Lib Dem opponent Elwyn Watkins.

The court found comments made in Woolas's campaign literature that Watkins tried to 'woo' extremist Muslims who advocated violence against Woolas particularly objectionable. It declared the election -- which Woolas won by just 103 votes -- void and said the MP should lose his seat and be barred from public office for three years.

Woolas's legal team argue that the decision, if enforced, will have a 'chilling effect' on political debate. They contend that the court's interpretation of the Representation of the People Act is inconsistent with free speech principles and violated Woolas's right to freedom of expression under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Speaking at the RCJ yesterday, Gavin Millar QC said the Act gave his client "insufficient protection to his freedom to attack his opponent in relation to his campaigning and his attempts to win the support of voters at the election".

Helen Mountfield QC, appearing for Watkins, disputes this. She said: "It is no part of the law to protect freedom of expression where that freedom is abused to make one section of the community angry about, and fearful of, another on the basis of falsehoods."

The election court was "conspicuously cautious in its analysis of the facts of this case and its application of the law to those facts", added Mountfield.

The Labour Party leadership immediately suspended Woolas following the ruling, but has since come under fire from some within the party for failing to support him. The Guardian reports that constituents, MPs and other party members raised more than £30,000 in 48 hours for Woolas to pursue judicial review. Woolas said he was "humbled" and "blown away" by the support he had received, and remains hopeful that the election court decision will be overturned.

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