Michael Doherty: Should Making False Statements in a Referendum Campaign Be an Electoral Offence?

“Deep public anger about some statements should be acknowledged though, in particular the NHS funding statement from the Vote Leave campaign. This was a central statement of the campaign and appeared on the first official campaign poster as ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350m the EU takes every week’, and on the side of the Vote Leave campaign bus as ‘We send the EU £50 million a day let’s fund our NHS instead’. Amongst a range of difficulties with the veracity of this statement, the figure does not take into account the substantial rebate that is never sent to the EU.”

UK Constitutional Law Association

Michael DohertyOldham, 2010: In a closely fought election, where immigration was a central issue, the Labour candidate Phil Woolas published statements about his LibDem opponent that were found to be false statements of fact in relation to his personal character or conduct without believing them to be true, contrary to s.106 Representation of the People Act 1983. Woolas was compelled to leave his seat and a bye-election was called (Watkins v Woolas [2010] EWHC 2702).

UK, 2016: In a closely fought referendum vote, where immigration was a central issue, there are allegations that the successful Vote Leave campaign had knowingly published false statements.

This post will examine whether publishing false statements in a referendum campaign should be an electoral offence. There are many examples of false statements being treated as a serious social harm that needs to be regulated by law, including misrepresentation in contract law; the tort of defamation…

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