08:01, September 10 28 0 theguardian.com

2018-09-10 08:01:08
Brexit: May knew leave campaigners may have broken financial rules

The prime minister knew that leave campaigners might have “breached” financial limits during the EU referendum when she triggered article 50 initiating Brexit, her lawyers have admitted.

In a formal legal response to a high court challenge over the legitimacy of the vote, lawyers for Theresa May are attempting to dismiss the action brought by Britons living in France, Italy and Spain.

By suggesting that flaws in the referendum process were already anticipated, Joseph Barrett, the barrister who wrote the response , is implying there is nothing new for the high court to investigate.

The rival submissions and responses were released on Monday by lawyers acting for the “UK in EU” organisation, which has crowdfunded the legal challenge.

Its claim argues that the Electoral Commission’s findings on BeLeave and Vote Leave, which resulted in two officials being reported to the police and fines being imposed, mean the 2016 EU referendum was not a lawful, fair or free vote.

“The allegation of ‘error of fact’ upon which the claim is predicated is unsustainable,” Barrett, a barrister at 11 King’s Bench Walk chambers in London argued. “… At the time the decision to give article 50 notice was taken it was a matter of public record that campaigners may have breached campaign finance requirements, and other requirements, during the EU referendum campaign.

“The contention that the decision to give article 50 notice was founded on a premise that there had been universal compliance with those requirements is therefore incorrect and unarguable.”

He added: “Allegations that there had been breaches of campaign finance limits etc during the EU referendum campaign were a matter of public record at the date of giving article 50 notification, and it was also a matter of public record that such allegations were being investigated by the Electoral Commission (and might be found to be made out).”

Barrett also alleges that the claim is out of time, that the prime minister’s decision was reasonable at the time she made it in March 2017 and that if the claimants won there would be “the clearest possible detriment to good administration”.

Commenting on the government’s response, Sue Wilson, the lead claimant and chair of Bremain in Spain, said: “We took the decision to publish the Summary Grounds of Resistance and our response in order to provide complete transparency about the challenge and the repercussions of the Vote Leave campaign for members of the public.

“We must be able to trust in the democratic process and to be sure that votes and power can’t be bought. If the prime minister was aware of the allegations of cheating during the referendum at the time she sent her letter giving notice for the UK to withdraw from the EU – as appears to be the case here – she needs to be held accountable.”

Rupert Croft, the managing director of Croft Solicitors, which is acting for the claimants, said: “The next step is for a high court judge to decide how the case should proceed. We have requested that a hearing is listed on an expedited basis to decide the claim. We believe that the claim is of significant constitutional importance, but, unless it’s heard quickly, there’s a risk it will become academic.”

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