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Modern legal framework for UK elections needed

10th Feb 2016

A new interim report published on February 4th has revealed that the UK is in need of a modern legal framework to govern the conduct of elections and referendums.

The Law Commissions of England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have recommended that the process for challenging elections be modernised in order to make it easier for parties to understand and use, and that judges be given the power to limit the potential costs for challengers.

UK electoral law is currently spread across 40 Acts which date back to 1700, and over 100 secondary pieces of legislation.

The law governing how election results can be challenged has hardly altered since 1868, only allowing rival candidates and voters to bring a challenge which costs thousands of pounds and requires them to comply with onerous procedural rules.

The report also recommended that existing electoral offences be updated and made easier for the electorate, officials, and prosecutors to understand. The maximum sentence for serious offences should be increased to ten years, the commissions suggested, as fear of electoral fraud has grown over recent years following several high-profile cases.

Nicholas Paines QC, Law Commissioner for public law at the Law Commission of England and Wales, said: “Electoral law must be simplified, modernised and rationalised so that it can be more easily understood and used by administrators and candidates, and the public can have more certainty as to their rights.”

Paines continued to say that “The law must be set out in such a way that policy development by government, once properly scrutinised by parliament, can be achieved by one legislative change, rather than a dozen spread out across several years.”

Chairman of the Scottish Law Commission, Lord Pentland, noted how inconsistencies and ambiguities risked undermining the credibility of the electoral process.

Bob Posner, director of party and election finance and legal counsel at the Electoral Commission, welcomed the report: “During recent decades these laws have grown complex, unwieldy and out of date, which has made it more difficult to administer and take part in elections.”

He continued to say that “It’s important that the UK and Scottish governments now agree that the Law Commissions can move onto the crucial next phase of their work to prepare draft legislation.”