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Darren Grimes v The Electoral Commission

23 April 2019: Media Statement by James Saunders

Darren Grimes was a student from County Durham who believed the UK should get out of the EU, when in March 2016 he applied to the Electoral Commission to register “BeLeave/Darren Grimes” as a designated Brexit campaigner in the forthcoming EU referendum. He led a loose association of young people called BeLeave who communicated through social media, and thought their generation was being kept out of the debate. Darren had no money but wanted their voice to be heard.  The Commission wrote back to him accepting his application.

The BeLeave campaign was so compelling that in the run up to the referendum Darren was offered surplus donations of over £600,000 from Vote Leave (the principal Brexit campaigner) which was spent on getting BeLeave digital messages out to the voters. BeLeave was so informal it didn’t even have a bank account, so the Commission was consulted about the donation, and was understood to have agreed to the donation on the basis that BeLeave/Darren did not have “a common plan” with Vote Leave for spending the donation. It is Darren’s case that they didn’t. Darren made the required post referendum spending return for BeLeave; there were some insignificant errors and the Commission said it had registered Darren personally, not BeLeave, (although not pointing this out to Darren at the time), but it approved the return anyway. No credible person suggests Darren was dishonest, or made a profit, or spent the donation other than as the donors wished.

In October 2017, the Commission’s handling of the referendum was challenged at the High Court by Remain campaigners, and it started an investigation which reversed its previous findings and fined Darren the maximum £20,000 for the election offences it had previously discounted. The Commission now decided that BeLeave hadn’t actually existed when Darren applied to register it, despite:

  1. BeLeave having written a letter of support for Vote Leave to become the designated lead campaigner on 22 March 2016 which refers to BeLeave as a group
  1. There is a published photograph of BeLeave members with a BeLeave sign taken in March 2016
  1. The BeLeave website with content from several members was created in April 2016
  1. The BeLeave website domain was purchased by Mr Grimes in February 2016
  1. Cleo Watson of Vote Leave sent email correspondence to her colleagues on 16 April 2016 referring to ‘Outreach events’. There is a list of outreach groups at the end of the email including ‘BeLeave (youth group)’
  1. Cleo Watson’s recollection is that the #BeLeave hashtag started in January 2016 and this morphed into the group BeLeave. She recalls a team of people working on BeLeave’s aims
  1. Solicitors acting for Victoria Woodcock and Cleo Watson, then executives of Vote Leave Ltd, have made representations to the Commission which set out at some length their dealings with Mr Grimes and BeLeave
  1. The Commission accepts that prior to May 2016, there were individuals producing online content with BeLeave branding
  1. There was a Facebook group named BeLeave Contributors in existence in February 2016 and various members of the group contributed content for use in BeLeave campaigning. This was a group of at least 89 members

Darren cooperated with and gave a statement to the Commission and answered all its questions. However, the Commission then took secret evidence from three alleged whistle blowers, including one Shamir Sanni, all prepared by the same solicitors who declined at their press conference to say who was paying the bill for this work.   The Commission did not take evidence from Vote Leave’s outreach staff, such as Victoria Woodcock and Cleo Watson, who on the Commission’s case must have known the facts. The alleged whistle blowers’ full evidence was not disclosed to Darren, we were not allowed to hear the evidence so we couldn’t challenge it and or have the witnesses cross examined. The evidence is riddled with contradictions and claims that are not right. Sanni has recently published defamatory allegations against Darren stating:

“This is now a criminal investigation.” Name’s of those I believe are under investigation by the NCA: @michaelgove, @GiselaStuart, @matthewelliott, @patel4witham, @BorisJohnson, Dominic Cummings, Stephen Parkinson, Victoria Woodcock, Henry De Zoete, Thomas Borwick, Darren Grimes”.

The National Crime Agency is not investigating Darren, so Mr Sanni’s slur is untrue. He also omitted to mention in his statement to the Commission that one of the people he accused was in fact a lover who had jilted him!

Darren’s appeal against the Commission’s finding will be heard at the Central London County Court on 15th July 2019, and his £75,000 legal costs to date have been generously met by donations from the public through Crowd Justice.    

However, the Commission has embarked on a war of attrition over costs, spending obscene amounts of taxpayers’ money on costs, so much so that Saunders Law applied on 17th April for a Court Order to cap the costs the Commission could recover from Darren in the case. The Commission has hired Sir James Eadie QC (reputed to have been paid £2.2m by the Government in just one year) and a team of junior barristers and City solicitors Fieldfisher.

On 15th March 2019, one of Fieldfisher’s solicitors filed a statement estimating the Commission’s costs for the appeal at £325,000, a staggering sum to spend on justifying a fine of £20,000; but worse was to follow.

At the 17th April hearing Judge Dight asked the Commission’s Counsel how much they had already spent on the case, to which the answer, apparently on the Commission’s direct instructions, was somewhere between £350,000 & £400,000!

As the Judge dryly observed of the figures, “they can’t both be right”, and reserved his judgement until 8th May, demanding an explanation of the evidence.   

If the Commission’s costs to date are £400,000, the final bill could easily reach £1m of public money, spent on a celebrity QC and City solicitors in preference to using the Government Legal Department, which it often instructs.

The Commission exists to supervise elections and referendums and says of itself:

“we are an independent body set up by the UK Parliament. Our aim is integrity and public confidence in the democratic process”

Darren Grimes has not found the Commission to be independent, fair, objective, or a promoter of democracy. He has found it to be capricious and arbitrary, bowing to pressure from vested interests and profligate with public money. At the 17th April hearing, it was invited to comment on the justice of the costs position and had nothing to say.   

It tries and fines people like Darren without allowing them a hearing or disclosing all the evidence relied on or allowing the accused or their lawyers to question witnesses. It is both prosecutor and judge in its cases, and not compliant with Article 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 which sets the basic standards for a fair trial and level playing field. It does not seem fit to exercise Judicial powers.

Ten years ago, the great British Parliamentary MP’s expenses scandal broke and the world was outraged to hear of public money being spent improperly by some MPs on their luxuries and foibles, such as having a duck house on their pond, and the mortgage instalments paid on a second home that wasn’t actually mortgaged.   Many heads rolled. It is however salutary to recall that the sums wrongly claimed were in total little more than the Commission are spending on Darren’s appeal, and if this is how the Commission exercises its independence, something has gone badly wrong.

Whether one agrees with Brexit or not, Darren is a young man who, without reward. threw himself into the great public debate of our time, to uphold our democratic principles.

This is not about Brexit or Remain.  

We should be encouraging, not persecuting, young citizens who will be the backbone of a future participating democracy.

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