A controversial Church Fenton parish council by-election, where 20 ineligible people were allowed to cast votes, has ended up in the High Court.
Furious Church Fenton villagers, buoyed by a successful crowd-funding campaign, took their case to the High Court where they challenged Selby District Council’s returning officer Janet Waggott over her role in the debacle.
Villagers were incensed by a “catalogue of errors by Ms Waggott, which had crucially and damagingly undermined the democratic process”.
Janet Waggott, who is also the council’s chief executive, presided over the botched by-election on Super Thursday last May, when two residents of neighbouring parish Little Fenton and 18 residents of Biggin who should have been voting for the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, were wrongly allowed to vote for candidates in the Church Fenton Parish Council by-election.
This week His Honour Judge Saffman, sitting in the High Court, whilst dismissing the petition, commented: “I recognise that this petition has been brought for good and proper motives and has succeeded in highlighting errors which hopefully will not be allowed to recur.
“I should also add that I too am puzzled that an investigation appears to have been undertaken into what went wrong with this election and what lessons can be learnt but that has not been entirely conclusive and apparently has not been put into the public domain. I do not know if there are good reasons for that.”
Martin Blakey, a spokesman for the Church Fenton campaigners, explained: “This was a real David versus Goliath battle, with our little village of Church Fenton taking on the might of Selby District Council, backed by expensive legal counsel. We have been infuriated by Janet Waggott’s arrogant refusal to take responsibility for this debacle and were delighted to have had the chance to tackle the returning officer in court.
“What happened in court was astounding. We went to the High Court with no legal experience at all, but we had put in our homework and Sarah Chester did an astonishing job as our spokesperson in court with Sue Babington pulling it all together behind the scenes. It did not go unnoticed that so many witnesses for the council seemed to suffer from memory loss, most notably Ms Waggott.
“On some occasions she said she couldn’t remember what had happened, on other occasions she said she needed more time to think. This was especially strange as she had had plenty of time to think, since the by-election took place in May last year, fully 10 months ago.
“There’s no doubt that within the council I think it caught a lot of people out as to just how organised we were in terms of attention to detail and the amount of ground work we had put in, to say they were put on the back foot is an understatement.
“As petitioners we always knew that when we took this to the High Court that the Commissioner could only order a rerun of the by-election if specific laws had been broken in relation to how the by election had been conducted by the returning officer and her staff.
“We now know that despite a catalogue of errors, this did not happen. But we brought this petition to restore confidence in the democratic process and in an effort to stand up for democracy. We believe we have done this by highlighting significant incompetence and errors during and subsequently after the by election on 6 May 2021 at Church Fenton.”
He added: “Our concerns were confirmed in an email from Suzan Harrington, director of Corporate Services and Commissioning at Selby District Council in May last year in which she admitted that the issues at the polling station did call into question the administration of the election.
“It was interesting that one of the elected candidates, Joanna Mason, spoke on Radio York and said she had discussed the situation with two other elected candidates and they had decided that they did not want a re-run of the election.
“This was astounding. I suppose asking a newly-elected councillor, who won her seat by just 11 votes, if she would like a rerun of the election is akin to asking a turkey to vote for Christmas.”
“Ultimately we have now achieved our objective of highlighting this fiasco in the high-profile High Court and this case will ensure that future elections are very closely scrutinised to avoid these errors ever happening again.”
The costs of the petitioners’ case were met by Selby District Council.
• In the controversial by-election Jessica Kate Cooper, Stewart Keith Ferris and Joanna Louise Mason were elected to the parish council with 246, 261 and 232 votes respectively, while Stuart Metcalfe Spensley missed out with 221 votes.