Defamation of People Standing for Election

What is the law on false statements and defamation about election candidates?

Under the Representation of the People Act 1983 (RPA 1983), there are criminal penalties 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.

When does RPA 1983 apply?

The Act’s criminal offences apply from the time formal notice is given that an election is to take place until the point 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 the Queen’s intention to dissolve Parliament.

What are the offences under RPA 1983?

  • Under s 106 of RPA 1983, it is a criminal offence for a person or any director of any body or association corporate 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.
  • For s 106 to apply, it must be a distinct statement of fact as opposed to an expression of opinion or comment about a candidate.
  • It is a defence if the defendant can show s/he had reasonable grounds for believing the statement was true at the time of publication – even if the statement turns out to be untrue.
  • It is also an offence under s106 to publish false claims that a candidate has withdrawn from the election. This offence applies if the publisher of the statement knows that such a claim is false and has a purpose of promoting another candidate.

What is the penalty for breach of s 106?

The penalty for a breach of s 106 of RPA 1983 is a fine of up to £5,000. In 1992, there was a conviction under the Act after an individual published a leaflet which claimed that Jack Straw ‘hated Muslims’. In 2006, Labour candidate Miranda Grell was convicted under s 106 and barred from holding public office for three years after making false allegations of paedophilia against her gay Liberal Democrat opponent, Barry Smith.

What are the consequences for making false statements about election candidates under civil law?

The publisher of a false statement about an election candidate may, of course, also face a libel action in the civil courts if the statement is defamatory. However, it is much easier to get an injunction against the repetition of false statements through this criminal law than through a libel action because the criminal sanction of RPA 1983 allows a quicker remedy.

Does RPA 1983 cover false statements which are not defamatory but could be damaging?

RPA 1983 prohibits false statements even if they are not defamatory and bears some relation to the civil tort of malicious falsehoods in that damage must be proven by the candidate about whom the statement was made. One example is a £250 fine paid by a journalist in 1997 who published false allegations that an election candidate was a homosexual. It is not a defamatory statement to falsely state that a person is a homosexual, however in the context of an election in which the personal values of an individual can be at stake, it could lose votes. For instance, voters with certain religious beliefs might not vote for this particular candidate as a result of such a false statement.

What are the defamation dangers for the media reporting speeches and other material during elections?

Journalists should observe civil law when reporting the heated debate about both politics and individual candidates during election campaigns. Candidates and their party supporters may make defamatory allegations about rivals yet a media organisation which then publishes these comments may be successfully sued for libel if it has no legal defence.

The media can rely on qualified privilege which protects fair and accurate reports of meetings and press conferences, provided all the requirements of this defence are met. Journalists reporting the speeches and election material of extremist candidates could also be subject to legal proceedings based on stirring up hatred on grounds of race, sexuality or religion.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.