The Administrative Court has recently ruled against two members of the Green Party who made an innovative attempt to stand together in the Basingstoke constituency at the 2015 General Election on the basis of a job-share.
Sarah Cope and Clare Phipps both felt that their personal circumstances prevented them from adequately fulfilling the role of MP in their own right. Ms Cope is the mother of two young children, in respect of whom she has ongoing childcare obligations. Ms Phipps suffers from idiopathic hypersomnia, a condition which results in her sleeping for approximately 12 hours per day. They proposed, therefore, to stand as joint candidates for the Green Party and, if elected, to share the rights and obligations of the post.
The Acting Returning Officer in Basingstoke declined their joint nomination and Maria Miller, for the Conservative Party, was duly elected in May. Ms Cope and Ms Phipps sought permission to judicially review the Acting Returning Officer’s decision. They argued that the decision unjustifiably infringed their rights under Articles 8 and 14, ECHR and Article 3 of the First Protocol.
Timothy Straker QC and Phillip Patterson for the Acting Returning Officer argued that her decision was lawful, indeed necessary, as a result of the clear wording of section 1 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and various provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which pointed to UK Parliamentary constituencies being represented by single members in the Commons.
Despite a late attempt to amend their pleading to seek a declaration of incompatibility under section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998, Ms Cope and Ms Phipps were denied permission to bring a claim for judicial review.
After a permission hearing on 28 July 2015, Mr Justice Wilkie held that the Acting Returning Officer’s decision was unarguably correct and reflective of the law as it stood. He considered that the broader challenges to the legislation made in the application for permission to be beyond the justiciable limits of the High Court. His Lordship accepted the submissions made on behalf of the Acting Returning Officer that the introduction of job-sharing MPs into the existing system would generate a range of profound conceptual and practical consequences which the court would be ill-equipped to foresee or address.
Finally, Mr Justice Wilkie was persuaded that the question at the heart of the claim was an academic one. Ms Cope and Ms Phipps did not seek to challenge the result of the 2015 election in Basingstoke, but sought only to obtain declarations that would allow them, and others in similar positions to them, to stand on a job-sharing basis in future elections. Whilst His Lordship acknowledged that the issues raised by the claim were important and interesting, a claim for judicial review was not an appropriate forum in which to consider them, where there was no direct interest in the conclusions reached.
The court heard evidence of a recognition, on the part of Parliament, that the House of Commons should be more representative of the population at large and that prospective candidates should not be barred from standing on the grounds of gender or disability. Nevertheless, this judgment makes clear that the responsibility for achieving this lies with Parliament itself and not with the courts.