The High Court has blocked a private prosecution of Tory leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson and ordered that a criminal summons against him be quashed, after hearing that the case was the “culmination of a politically driven process”.
Mr Justice Supperstone and Lady Justice Rafferty announced their decision on Friday after hearing arguments in the High Court on whether the private prosecution, over comments Mr Johnson made during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, should be stopped. The judges will give their reasons at a later date.
The decision in effect brings the case to an end and means Mr Johnson will not now have to appear in a criminal court or face trial at a critical time in his battle to become leader of the Conservative party.
Mr Johnson had gone to the High Court to challenge last week’s decision by a district judge that a summons could be issued requiring him to attend Westminster magistrates’ court.
The private criminal prosecution was brought by Marcus Ball, a Remainer whose Brexit Justice movement has crowdfunded more than £236,000 to support the action over Mr Johnson’s comments in the run-up to the vote three years ago that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU.
Mr Ball wanted to make three allegations of misconduct in a public office, both in the run-up to the June 2016 referendum and in the weeks before the 2017 general election, when Mr Johnson was mayor of London and then a member of parliament.
He alleged that Mr Johnson’s claim that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU, which was emblazoned on a red bus, was misleading. He contends that Mr Johnson was deliberately acting in a misleading way while using the “platforms and opportunities offered to him by virtue of his public office”.
Mr Ball’s team can appeal against the decision to the Supreme Court but only if the High Court permits him to do so on a point of law, which is seen as unlikely.
Adrian Darbishire QC, acting for Mr Johnson, had earlier told the High Court that the district judge had erred in law in deciding that the summons could be issued. “The only rational conclusion was that the prosecution was politically motivated and hence vexatious,” he said.
Mr Darbishire said in written arguments that Mr Johnson denied acting improperly or dishonestly and the prosecution would set a “troubling” precedent.
“There has never been a case in this country nor, so far as we are aware, in any democracy, in which an attempt has been made to prosecute any individual, whether candidate, office holder or other, for false statements about public facts made in and for the purpose of political campaigning,” Mr Johnson’s barrister added in his written arguments to the court.
“Such a prosecution is wholly alien to the common law democracies, where no such law has been passed and such conduct has never been considered to be criminal,” he added.
Jason Coppel QC, acting for Mr Ball, argued that Mr Johnson’s legal challenge should fail and the summons should be issued. He said in his written arguments that it was “perfectly rational” for the district judge to rule that the summons should be issued. “The invocation of the criminal law in this particular context does not threaten responsible political debate,” he said. “Mr Ball’s views about Brexit do not represent the sole motivation for the prosecution,” he argued.
The UK Statistics Authority criticised the use of the £350m figure by Leave campaigners during the referendum campaign in 2016, saying the figure did not take into account the UK’s rebate or the money that comes back via farming subsidies, regional development funds or grants to the private sector.