Saturday, 25 April 2015

Lutfur Rahman - More on the judgment

There has been some critical comment in the blogosphere on Judge Richard Mawrey QC's judgment in the electoral fraud case against Mayor Lutfur Rahman of Tower Hamlets.

There has also been a hashtag on Twitter entitled #towerhamletscoup, which might be seen as rather insulting to people around the world, from Egypt to Thailand, who have suffered the consequences of actual coups d'├ętat.

Here are some comments on the criticisms that have been directed at the judgment.

A duly elected candidate should not be deposed by an unelected judge.  Ken Livingstone in particular is not happy about this (can't think why).  But it is a specious argument, for a reason pointed out in the judgment itself.  A candidate who has tainted the election with corrupt practices has not been duly elected.  That's the whole point.  Plus, someone needs to be given the task of ruling on election petitions.  Parliament has entrusted the task to judges - in other words, independent people whose job it is to weigh evidence and apply legal principles to bitterly fought disputes.  The alternative to judges would be some commission of politicians or bureaucrats, which is hardly an attractive option.  (Plus, any such commission would currently be dominated by Conservative and Lib Dem appointees, and I doubt that Rahman's defenders would like that very much.)

Mawrey isn't a real judge.  Yes, he is.  He is a deputy judge of the High Court, appointed by the Queen.  And any litigation lawyer will tell you that the use of deputy judges to try important cases is standard practice.  Mawrey is an experienced public law QC and election judge who has sat on high-profile election petitions in the past (which led to one blogger claiming that he had "demonstrated previously a peculiar interest in Muslims and elections" - as if the cases were his fault).

The concept of "undue spiritual influence" is outmoded.  The right-wing Christianist blogger Adrian Hilton is particularly upset about this.  But the Act doesn't refer to "spiritual influence", it refers to "spiritual injury".  There is no special legal meaning to these words: as a matter of common English usage, if I influence you, I am doing something different from if I injure you.  Anyway, spiritual injury is a narrow concept - basically, vote-for-me-or-you're-damned - and it is very rarely enforced.  In this case, there is room for reasonable people to disagree about whether, on the facts, the Imams overstepped the boundary.  But the judge was certainly entitled to find that they did.  An unambiguously worded letter from 101 Islamic clerics endorsing a specific election candidate was not something to dismiss lightly.  Which leads us on to....

The judgment was Islamophobic because it assumed that Muslims would blindly obey their Imams.  There is no serious dispute that the Tower Hamlets Muslim community is more religious than the average for modern Britain, and it is difficult to see how it is Islamophobic to suggest that the pronouncements of Imams would be taken seriously.  Some people have chosen to take the judge's observation that it "would be wrong... to treat Tower Hamlets’ Muslim community by the standards of a secular and largely agnostic metropolitan elite" as meaning that there is one law for Muslims and another for everybody else.  In reality, it was no more than a statement of the obvious.  A similar point could have been made about white Christians in, say, Troubles-era Northern Ireland.

The judgment was Islamophobic because it said that Muslims were not a real minority.  The judge pointed out that Bangladeshi Muslims in Tower Hamlets are "the largest community in comparison to other religious and ethnic groupings".  Again, this is no more than a statement of the obvious.  It wasn't a gratuitous observation, either - it was relevant to the issues raised in the case precisely because "Mr Rahman and his associates constantly refer to the Bangladeshi community of Tower Hamlets as if it were a small beleaguered ethnic minority in a sea of hostile racial prejudice".  Those of us who have lived there will understand the point that the judge was making.