There is now less than one week until polling day and, as an antidote to the election fatigue most of us are feeling, it is worth looking at some of the more interesting laws relating to elections and the Parliament generally.
So, here are five facts about some of the laws surrounding polls, parliaments and the polity.
1. The Election Court
“Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve” – George Bernard Shaw
There is a court, imaginatively called an ‘Election Court’, which is convened especially to deal with and hear petitions against the result of local government or parliamentary elections. Under the Representation of the People Act 1983, it is convened for one case only and then disbanded once that case has been decided. The Court is overseen by High Court judges who work on a rota.
Election Courts do not have a jury and is equivalent to the High Court in terms of the orders it can make and the power that it has. Its judgment cannot be appealed, although it can be reviewed by the High Court under the judicial review procedure.
There have actually been a few hundred of these Election Courts in the past but the majority took place in the 19th century. Since 1983, only six such courts have been convened in relation to general election results. Of those six, four results were upheld and two, including the result of the Winchester constituency in 1997, were held to be void. Earlier this year, a petition was made for an Election Court to review the result of the by-election in Peterborough but it was withdrawn before trial.
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” – Winston Churchill
Some people may be attending ‘hustings’ over the coming days. Although this term now simply refers to an event in which one or more of the representative candidates are present, it used to have a more specific meaning. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a husting was a platform or some sort of structure that was put up at the place where an election was to take place. It was where the candidates were nominated and seconded and where they then addressed the crowd. This practice was abolished by the Ballot Act 1872. The word itself is thought to come from Old Norse, meaning ‘House Thing’ (‘House’ referring to the household retainers of kings, earls or chiefs and ‘Thing’ being the Old Norse word for a governing assembly).
3. Suit yourself…
“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people” – Oscar Wilde
It is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament whilst wearing a suit of armour and has been for over 700 years. In fact, an MP can’t even put their shiny new armour on once in the house as the 1313 Statute Forbidding Bearing of Armour, which has never been repealed, forbids members of Parliament from wearing armour in the House.
4. A democracy to die for
“There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide” – John Adams
Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal to die in Parliament. It is also not the case, contrary to popular belief, that anyone who dies in a royal palace is eligible for a state funeral. It is likely that, as the Palace of Westminster is a royal palace, this is where the idea that it is illegal to die there stems from. However, although while it is true that, under the Coroners Act 1988, the coroner of the Queen’s Household has jurisdiction over any death in a royal palace, there is no requirement for a state funeral to take place.
In fact, there have been at least four deaths at the Palace of Westminster over the years. Guy Fawkes was executed in the Old Palace Yard in 1606 and Sir Walter Raleigh was also executed there in 1618. The only assassination of a British Prime Minister took place in the lobby of the House of Commons when Spencer Perceval was shot in 1812. He died at the scene. The last death in the Houses of Parliament was in 1907 when Sir Alfred Billson collapsed and died in the ‘Aye’ lobby whilst he was casting his vote in support of a Bill placing a duty on sugar.
5. Strictly business…
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy” – Abraham Lincoln
It is occasionally reported that companies are allowed to vote in local elections in London. Whilst this not strictly speaking true, the elections for the City of London Corporation is unique in that it allows companies to appoint a certain number of employees to vote on their behalf. The number of voters that each company can appoint is dictated by the City of London (Ward Elections) Act 2002. The City of London Corporation has similar powers to the Borough Councils of London and governs a relatively small area north of the River Thames from Farringdon in the west to Tower in the east and Cripplegate and Bishopsgate to the north.
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