What is the law on false statements and defamation about election candidates?
Under the Representation of the People Act 1983, there are criminal penalties in place for those convicted of making or publishing false statements about election candidates. This is to protect the democratic process and is in addition to the general, civil law on libel (which must obviously also be observed when reporting elections).
When does the Representation of the People Act 1983 apply?
The Act’s criminal offences only apply from the time that formal notice is given that an election is to take place until the point at which the election ends. This is around five weeks for local government elections. Formal notice for national Parliamentary elections is taken to be the date of the dissolution of Parliament or any earlier announced indication of Her Majesty’ intention to dissolve Parliament.
What are the offences under the Representation of the People Act?
Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 specifies that it is a criminal offence to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of an election candidate. The purpose of making or publishing this false statement must be seen to be to affect how many votes the candidate will get.
Section 106 thus specifies that, in this offence, it must be a distinct statement of fact as opposed to an expression of opinion or comment about a candidate.
If a defendant can show that he/she has reasonable grounds for believing that the statement was true at the time of publication, then they will not be successfully prosecuted for this offence – even if the statement does turn out to be untrue. This differs from other defamation and libel actions whereby the defendant must prove that the statement is in fact true.
Section 106 also details a further offence: that of publishing a false claim that an election candidate has withdrawn from the election. The Act states that it will be an offence if the person responsible for this published statement knows that such a claim is false and has a purpose of promoting another candidate then they will be punished under this offence.
For more information on:
- What is the penalty for breach of section 106?
- What will the consequences be for making false statements about election candidates under civil law?
- Does the 1983 Act cover false statement which are not defamatory but could be damaging?
- What are the defamation dangers for the media reporting speeches and other material during elections?