Mr Chris Williamson MP was suspended in February 2019 following allegations of antisemitic conduct against him. In June 2019 he was given a final written warning by a disciplinary panel. Subsequently, the Labour Party decided to re-open the decision and remit his case to a fresh disciplinary panel in July following criticisms and concerns about the safety of the June panel’s decision. His case was referred to the National Constitutional Committee of the Labour Party to determine. Mr Williamson was subsequently suspended following a second set of complaints made against him in September.
Sitting in the High Court of Justice, Mr Justice Pepperall declared that the decision to remit Mr Williamson’s case to a fresh panel in July 2019 was flawed and of no effect; however, he rejected Mr Williamson’s other claims and held that the Labour Party had acted properly in suspending the Claimant.
The case clarified significant points of law that will affect the disciplinary processes of all the UK’s major political parties and other unincorporated associations such as sports clubs and some trades regulators.
The High Court accepted Ms Crasnow QC and Mr Gillie’s submissions that there is an implied term in the contract of membership of unincorporated associations and political parties that allows them to reopen disciplinary decisions where the original decision was flawed. Fairness must require that cases be reconsidered where the panel overlooked some important evidence, or where its decision was procedurally unfair or obviously wrong.
The Court also accepted the Labour Party’s submissions that Courts should be astute not to allow concepts of fairness to make unreasonable demands upon an unincorporated association – in this case a political party. The Court held that it should not lightly interfere in the Labour Party’s decisions to investigate or to re-suspend Mr Williamson pending such investigation. Equally, it should not micro-manage the disciplinary process where it cannot be said that an organisation has acted unfairly or other than in good faith.
The judgment also confirms that it is acceptable to suspend an individual for a discrete set of allegations while they are suspended for a previous set of allegations; and confirms that even if the first suspension is terminated for some reason, the latter, second suspension will remain in force.
This case will interest public lawyers and employment lawyers alike. It delineates the extent to which those making disciplinary decision must act fairly in order to comply with natural justice. Those operating disciplinary proceedings should take note that a disciplinary decision may be re-opened if fairness requires it. Concepts of natural justice are vital – but they must not make over-burdensome demands on the course of a disciplinary procedure.