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Thursday 30 August 2018

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Legal Costs Fund Appeal launched for former Derby TUSC election agent

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) national steering committee has launched an appeal to help meet the legal costs of Chris Fernandez, the local election agent for eight TUSC candidates at the 2016 council elections in Derby, who earlier this year was imprisoned for 'electoral fraud'.

A full account of the case is available at http://www.tusc.org.uk/txt/413.pdf but in essence Chris was judged guilty of misleading members of the public on the electoral register into signing TUSC candidates' nomination papers in the 2016 local elections. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) argued and won on 12 out of 14 counts that people believed they were signing a petition against the closure of Derby's Moorways swimming pool and not a local election nomination form.

Chris categorically denied setting out to mislead anyone but, before the trial, was put under enormous pressure to admit to something he hadn't done and not contest the case. And now, scandalously, after having serving four months in prison, he has been hit with a bill for £8,847 for exercising his right to protest his innocence. Chris had applied for legal aid but, because he lost the case, he now has to pay a contribution to the costs.

Legal aid was a gain of the 1945 post-war Labour government but spending on it has been slashed by over £1bn in the last five years (deepening cost capping measures begun under Tony Blair). No wonder we see the rise of US-style 'plea-bargaining' for trials of low-income defendants, where justice isn't a matter of establishing the truth but is what prosecution and defence lawyers and the judge cynically decide it to be between themselves.

But working class activists should not be left to face these pressures alone, which is why the TUSC steering committee has agreed to launch a Chris Fernandez Legal Costs Fund Appeal. Donations, which will go to Chris from the TUSC national account, can be made through PayPal on the TUSC website at http://www.tusc.org.uk/donate. Please use the 'Add special instructions' button to tell us the donation is for the Legal Costs Fund Appeal.

Alternatively, cheques payable to TUSC can be sent to TUSC, 17 Colebert House, Colebert Avenue, London, E1 4JP, again with a note telling us it is for the Legal Costs Fund Appeal.

Dodgy and dodgier

The TUSC national election agent, Clive Heemskerk, who was present throughout Chris Fernandez's trial, authored the detailed rebuttal of the CPS case available at http://www.tusc.org.uk/txt/413.pdf. In a further press statement released at the sentencing hearing (see http://www.tusc.org.uk/17388/14-02-2018/press-release) he argued that a "prison sentence is totally disproportionate, even if the offences had been proven beyond reasonable doubt".

"But what is most disturbing about this case", the statement continued, "is that there was, in fact, plenty of doubt" - and new information has emerged since the trial confirming that.

One of the key arguments made in court by the CPS barrister, Gareth Roberts, was that people who signed a nomination paper "must understand that they are signing to nominate a candidate from a political party which they have heard of and which they support".

But the nomination paper itself does not even refer to the candidate's political party. There is no box to fill which is headed 'party'. There is a box headed 'description', which can be the party's name but can also be what is known as a 'registered description'. Each political party on the Electoral Commission's official list of parties (there are over 300 parties) is allowed to register up to 12 descriptions. Many of them have permitted descriptions that can appear on ballot papers - and therefore nomination forms - that have no reference to the party name in them.

This includes the Liberal Democrats. Thousands of Liberal Democrat local council candidates, for example, have used the registered description 'Focus Team' on the ballot paper. In these cases the words 'Liberal Democrat' would not have appeared anywhere on the candidate's nomination paper and someone filling in such a form may well not have known they were 'signing to nominate a candidate from a political party which they support'! Would Gareth Roberts argue that these candidates too must have been fraudulently nominated?

Probably not. It was bad enough that he did not explain to the court that electors would not necessarily need to be familiar with TUSC, or remember its name, to have validly signed a nomination paper. But it has now emerged that Gareth Roberts was himself previously a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in the 2005 general election (for the Welsh seat of Conwy). Surely he knew the reality of electoral law regarding party descriptions - including the practices of his own party?

Gareth Roberts argued that Chris Fernandez had tricked people into signing the nomination papers because "he knew people would not support TUSC". In reality he was making a political attack to win his case, not a legal point. Unfortunately he was allowed to go unanswered in court and a 60-year old man with no previous convictions ended up with a jail sentence and now a legal bill of nearly £9,000.