14:04, November 21 60 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-21 14:04:04
Vote Leave loses legal challenge over Brexit spending breach

The official pro-Brexit campaign group has lost a judicial review aimed at trying to get an Electoral Commission ruling that it breached spending limits thrown out.

Vote Leave was challenging the findings of a report issued in July that it had exceeded the prescribed £7m limit by channeling funds via another campaign group, but the high court concluded on Wednesday that its case was groundless.

A judgment by Mrs Justice Yip said: “I do not consider that the claimant’s grounds are arguable.” She also dismissed an attempt to claim that the commission did not have the power to investigate the alleged overspending.

Vote Leave was fined £61,000 by the watchdog in July and its accounting officer, David Halsall, was referred to the police for further investigation.

At the time, Matthew Elliott, the former chief executive of Vote Leave, claimed the commission had not followed due process in its investigation and that it was driven by “a highly political agenda”.

Bob Posner, the commission’s legal counsel, in turn complained that Vote Leave “resisted our investigation from the start, including contesting our right as the statutory regulator to open the investigation”.

Fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, Vote Leave was accused of submitting incomplete and inaccurate spending returns, and of channelling donations it had received to the smaller BeLeave group which it worked with “under a common plan”, meaning its true spending was £450,000 over the £7m limit.

Wednesday’s judgment said Vote Leave had raised “general complaints about the fairness of the procedure leading up to the publication of the report” and in particular the lack of opportunity for Vote Leave “to consider and comment on the report before it was released to the media”.

Yip held that “even if it is arguable that [the Electoral Commission] acted unfairly in publishing the report” without giving Vote Leave time to comment “I conclude that it is highly likely that the outcome would have been the same”.

Vote Leave may yet succeed in getting the commission’s verdict overturned because it is separately appealing against the July verdict. In concluding the judicial review, Yip said that the appeal would “provide a suitable alternative remedy” in any event.

BeLeave, a youth-oriented pro-Brexit group which was run by the fashion student Darren Grimes, was also a party to the judicial review. Grimes is also subject to a continuing police investigation following the July ruling.

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