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Rennard legal action threatens individual officers of the English Party

The media were reporting (BBC News) on Monday that Chris Rennard was intending to take legal action against the Liberal Democrats over the suspension of his membership. Having previously written about the role of the different bodies of the English Party in the process of this suspension I was concerned to note that the proposed legal action is directed towards named individuals holding party positions. As The Guardian’s report puts it:

The letter keeps open the possibility of holding senior party figures personally liable, because the Liberal Democrat party is an unincorporated association, which means it does not possess “legal personality”. It is addressed to Mike Wheatley, chair of the regional parties committee, Margaret Joachim, vice-chair of the committee, and Peter Ellis, chair of the Liberal Democrats English party. If Rennard won a court action they might have to pay his legal costs and damages.

I think it is important to point out that all three of these individuals are volunteers. They are not employees of the Party. None of them receive any compensation for the work they do for the English Party (except possibly occasional travel expenses). Irrespective of whether these individuals have acted correctly in this matter, and/or acted legally, I don’t feel it is right that they should be under any threat of financial penalty for acting in a voluntary capacity.

The Liberal Democrats as an organisation is dependent on volunteers. Without them it couldn’t operate and often these volunteers take on a considerable amount of responsibility. However, those in such positions are almost always acting on behalf of the Party in a wider sense. So I am troubled that a situation could occur in which individuals can be threatened with legal action rather than the body (in this case the English Party) on whose behalf they are acting.

I think two things need to happen:

  • The Party needs to ensure that, if these individuals do end up in a situation where they have to pay costs and damages because of legal action, arrangements are made for these costs to be met by the Party as a whole.
  • Where possible the structures and legal status of the Party is changed so that where decisions are made that could become the subject of legal challenge volunteers working within it have greater protection.

I’m not a legal expert and so may be missing some of the subtelties of this situation. Nor do I want to suggest that those in positions of responsibility who act incompetently or maliciously should be protected from the consequences. However, instinctively I feel that it is wrong for those participating within a voluntary organisation to become personally liable in this way.

4 comments on “Rennard legal action threatens individual officers of the English Party

  1. Jennie on

    This seems nonsensical to me, and I can only think that it has been done for intimidatory purposes. If one were aiming for justice one would surely invoke the principle of vicarious liability; the party is surely more culpable than any named individual?

    I am more and more of the opinion that Rennard has decided that if he’s going down he’s going to take as much of the party with him as (in)humanly possible. 🙁

    Reply
    • Liz W on

      If the party doesn’t have legal personality – and I can’t think how it would – it can’t be sued by name. Picking someone to sue in a representative capacity is the only way to do it. (Happens a lot with insurance syndicates, trade unions, sports clubs and other such things). Any liability then falls on everyone being represented, which would presumably be all members of the English Party. There’s probably something in the small print when people join that limits their liability to the amount of their membership fee, though, in which case Rennard would be bound by that (having signed up to it when he became a member himself) and would be limited to enforcing against whatever funds the party holds centrally. In the case of the English Party specifically, probably not very much given that it usually acts through the Federal Party?

      Anyway, if the intention is indeed to sue the officers as representatives, the eventual claim form should say so. Anyone who wants to check that will be able to order a copy of the claim form from the court once it’s been issued and served and the defendants have acknowledged service. You need to know or be able to guess which court it was issued in, though, because there’s no central record of these things.

      Reply
      • Andy Strange on

        Thanks Liz. That makes sense and is somewhat reassuring. I’d assume it was likely that any action taken would be against individuals as representatives as you suggest.

        On the funds; the English Party theoretically gets all the membership income from the Party in England – but the vast majority of that either gets passed to the Federal Party or back to regions and local parties. So no, it doesn’t have much funds to be claimed against.

        I still think it is worth thinking about how to avoid putting volunteers in the frame in these situations. Perhaps an answer would be to establish the convention that if anyone wants to sue the Liberal Democrats they should address their legal action to the Party President alone. He or she being the “chief representative” of the Party as a whole. I don’t know if that is possible?

        Reply
      • Richard Gadsden on

        What options are there for a legal personality for the party? Industrial and Provident Society, I guess, is the closest.

        Could we legislatively create a new vehicle for associations of individuals – parties, Trades Unions, etc.

        Reply

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