Heesom v Public Services Ombudsman for Wales [2014]

In Heesom v Public Services Ombudsman for Wales [2014] EWHC 1504 Mr Heesom, a 76 year old Councillor, had served on his local council in Flintshire, North Wales since 1990. In 2009, a number of allegations of misconduct were made against him by the non-elected officers of the Council. The allegations led to him standing down from the Executive, but continuing to perform his duties as a Councillor.

A complaint was made about him to the Ombudsman for Wales and after an enquiry,he was found to have breached the Council’s code of conduct. As the breaches were considered to be serious, the matter was sent to the Adjudication Panel for Wales to be heard before the Case Tribunal.

It was held that the Councillor had incurred 14 breaches of the code of conduct which comprised of his failure to show respect and consideration for council officers and other matters including using bullying behaviour. Overall it was deemed his conduct would bring the Council in disrepute.

The sanction imposed by the Tribunal was that he be disqualified from being a Councillor for 2 years and 6 months. He appealed this decision to the High Court on the basis that the misconduct findings and the subsequent sanction were both unlawful.

The Councillor challenged the decision by bringing a statutory appeal.

Mr Justice Hickinbottom heard the appeal and had to decide what constituted a politicians right of freedom of expression.

Article 10 of The European Convention on Human Rights provides for the right to freedom of expression and information. Therefore, comments and assertions made within a political setting are acceptable but the same comments could be considered unacceptable behaviour in a non-political environment. However, within a political environment a politician would be shielded as long as any comments made by him were honestly held and not knowingly untrue.

The European legislation provides politicians with greater protection than non-politicians as the Court acknowledges that the environment in which they inhabit makes them susceptible to adverse criticism and haranguing and as such they are obliged to accept this and respond in a manner befitting their office, in contrast to a non-political individual. This protection also covers political commentators and those who write about politicians eg the newspapers.

Whereby the Tribunal found the Councillor had committed 14 breaches of the code of conduct on an array of matters including bullying behavior and failing to show respect to other Councillors, the Judge found, where for example, he had verbally abused two members of an appointment panel, this would amount to political expression.

However, the Judge on reviewing the breaches and applying the protection of “political expression” found that all but two of the fourteen breaches, even with the greater protection afforded to politicians, had been a breach of the Code of Conduct because of the seriousness of the behavior of the Councillor.

The Judge did, however, reduce the sanction imposed against the Councillor to an eighteen month disqualification instead.





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