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Boris Johnson: Court quashes attempt to prosecute prime minister over Brexit bus 'lies'

The Independent logo The Independent 14/08/2019 Lizzie Dearden

Boris Johnson in front of the Brexit bus. © Getty Boris Johnson in front of the Brexit bus.

An attempt to prosecute Boris Johnson over the claim that Britain gave the EU £350m a week has been thrown out by a judge.

Marcus Ball, a 29-year-old entrepreneur who has so far raised £570,000 for the case, sought permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

But the bid was refused by Lady Justice Rafferty on Wednesday.

A judge initially summonsed Mr Johnson to appear in court over accusations of misconduct in public office in May, but the Divisional Court overturned the ruling in June.

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At a hearing in July, Mr Ball’s lawyers filed an application challenging the Divisional Court’s decision to quash the summons for Mr Johnson.

They argued that judges were wrong to find that misconduct in public office laws could not be used for political campaign statements.

“We have grave concerns that public officers can now abuse their status and influence and to act in blatant disregard of the duties and obligations placed upon them, safe in the knowledge that no criminal consequences will follow,” Mr Ball said.

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“This case extends far beyond Mr Johnson … we believe that we have a duty to the public to ensure that the proper limits of the offence are defined.”

The attempted private prosecution started in February, when Mr Ball’s lawyers accused Mr Johnson of knowing Vote Leave’s claim that Britain sent the EU £350m a week was false and used the figure to “mislead” the public.

The figure was emblazoned on the red campaign bus during the 2016 EU referendum, with the slogan: “We send the EU £350m a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.”

Mr Johnson’s lawyer said his client denied acting dishonestly and argued Vote Leave’s £350m-a-week claim was based on information that was “freely available to all”.

Adrian Darbishire QC said the district judge who summonsed the former foreign secretary to court had “erred in law”.

© Gett

“It was just a political claim open to and available for contradiction and debate, and it was, and is, for the good sense of the electorate to discount it if they choose so to do,” the lawyer added.

“It is not for the Crown Prosecution Service, judge and jury to determine the misconduct of this claim and it is not for the interested party either.”

In a full ruling published in July, High Court judges concluded that the “problem of false statements in the course of political campaigning is not new”.

Lady Justice Rafferty and Mr Justice Supperstone said laws governing the issue did not cover arguments used in political campaigns like the EU referendum.

“There is no precedent for any office holder being prosecuted for misconduct in public office for wilfully making or endorsing a misleading statement in and for the purposes of political campaigning,” their ruling said.

The judges said that allegations that Mr Johnson knew Vote Leave’s £350m-a-week claim was false would not amount to neglect of duties or the abuse of state power.

They noted a 2016 Electoral Commission report, which predicted that opposing sides of the Brexit debate would contest each other’s claims but said it was the “role of campaigners to debate the relative merits of their arguments”.

Mr Johnson’s lawyers had also claimed the case was “motivated by a political objective” to undermine the result of the EU referendum.

High Court judges said Mr Ball had deleted large parts of his social media history but a previous crowdfunding website post discussed legal options to “prevent Brexit”, and he had called himself “pro-Remain”.

“We would also have quashed the decision on the basis that the finding that the prosecution was not vexatious was flawed,” they concluded.

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