You may well have read yesterday that Richard Mawrey QC, the judge in the forthcoming Election Court petition for Tower Hamlets, had apparently intervened following allegations of witness intimidation.
The petitioners had hosted a press conference in Brick Lane on Monday evening to outline their concerns.
The petitioner’s chair, Dame Janet Digby-Baker, who runs a fostering agency in Mile End, said they had been told by at least one witness that their families in Bangladesh would “would be hurt” or even “killed” if they did not withdraw their statements.
According to a thoroughly confused report of the press conference by Breitbart London, here, these allegations had caused Mr Mawrey to make a ruling that “witnesses’ names and addresses will no longer be made public”.
An accurate report appeared online at The Wharf, where Rob Virtue wrote:
Petitioner Andy Erlam said another man who had complained to the petition that his postal ballot paper had been stolen had been “approached by strangers six or seven times on the street and aggressively confronted about ‘why he was attacking the mayor'”.
“I’ve seen he’s partially withdrawn his statement in evidence,” said Mr Erlam. “Why would someone complain to the police, talk openly to us, although nervous and frightened and then withdraw? It is something we’re going to have to sort out in court.”
Mr Erlam said Richard Mawrey QC, the Commissioner in the trial, had this week made the decision to allow anonymous witness statements in light of the accusations The group also appealed for victims of intimidation to contact the police.
The petitioners made clear that they were not in any way connecting Mayor Lutfur Rahman to the allegations.
Their claims at the press conference were based on an email Mr Mawrey had sent to the petition parties on Monday, when he wrote:
…I have the power in circumstances where I feel that a witness may be subject to intimidation or reprisal if he gives evidence to allow that witness to give evidence with his identity disclosed only to to the court and not to the other parties (or to the other parties’ lawyers only). I have exercised that power in the past and would do so again.
As a result of the news reports, Mr Mawrey, who is surely now beginning to realise what it’s like operating in Tower Hamlets, today sent a further email to the parties to the record straight.
If, at he hearing, I am satisfied that there has been or may be a risk of intimidation, I have the power to hear evidence in camera or to permit identities of witnesses to be withheld from the parties and the public.
I have not, of course, said that I am currently satisfied that there is such a risk or that I shall make any such order and I hope this is clear to all parties.
This appears to be a judicial expression of judicial irritation.
The petitioners might not have judged Monday’s public move particularly well. In his first directions order at the outset of the proceedings, Mr Mawrey wrote:
I appreciate that this petition is hotly contested and all parties feel strongly about the issues raised in it.
I would strongly counsel the parties (and that includes the second respondent) not to attempt to fight these battles in the media, social or otherwise. [My italics]
The issues are now sub judice and I consider that they should be treated as such even though petitions do not involve juries.
The petitioners may have “missed the memo”, so to speak.
As it happens, they may well have to up their game because Lutfur has just appointed a new barrister.
Laidlaw, who successfully defended former News International boss Rebekah Brooks in the phone hacking trial, has been hired to provide clout on some of the allegations of criminality in the petition.
Mountfield, who acted successfully for Lib Dem Elwyn Watkins against Labour’s Phil Woolas in the 2010 Oldham East Election Court petition, is considered more of a public law specialist.
It’s not yet clear whether both will act during the court hearing itself, which is expected in the New Year. It depends on which parts of the petition Mr Mawrey allows through to the courtroom.
It’s also worth noting that both silks are extremely expensive, Laidlaw particularly so.
And it’s also worth re-emphasising their fees will not be paid from public funds.
This is entirely a private risk for Lutfur, who faces possible bankruptcy if he loses.
However, he has set up a fighting fund to help cover his legal fees. I don’t know how much he’s raised or who the donors are.
Neither am I clear whether the fund or its backers must be declared publicly, eg on Lutfur’s register of interests. Can anyone help with this?