A Birmingham Labour councillor accused of winning his seat off the back of a smear campaign against his Liberal Democrat opponent faces a lengthy wait before discovering whether he is to be stripped of office.
An election court considering the allegations against Muhammed Afzal will be adjourned tomorrow and may not sit again until the beginning of January – a decision that the Labour Party is considering appealing against.
The hearing, initially listed for seven days, has fallen behind schedule following lengthy cross-examination of a larger number of witnesses than originally anticipated. The proceedings are expected to last for at least a further ten working days.
Recorder Timothy Straker QC, sitting at Birmingham Crown Court as the Elections Commissioner, said his own professional engagements during the rest of November meant the hearing could not continue next week. Mr Straker identified January 2, 3 and 4th as the best opportunity for all of the parties involved to resume.
But his decision is inconsistent with Section 139 of the 1983 Representation of the People Act, according to Gavin Millar QC, representing Coun Afzal and the Labour Party.
Mr Millar said the legislation stated election courts must "as far as is practical and consistent with the interests of justice be conducted from day to day on every lawful day" until reaching a conclusion.
The law recognised the adverse impact on the quality of democracy if cases were allowed to drag on and it was unacceptable that doubts about Coun Afzal's ability to carry out public duties lawfully should be allowed to "hang over my client's head".
Mr Millar said it was possible the Elections Commissioner might not be in a position to conclude the trial and announce a verdict until Easter, a timescale that would be at odds with the premise laid down in the Act that such trials would be undertaken as quickly as possible.
He is considering an appeal to the Divisional Court in an attempt to overrule Mr Straker's decision that the court should adjourn.
The court is considering claims in an election petition that this year's city council election in Aston was tainted by a smear campaign against the Liberal Democrat candidate Saeed Aehmed. The petitioners want the election voided and Coun Afzal removed from the council.
It is alleged that Coun Afzal and members of his family made false statements to voters that Mr Aehmed had been arrested for fraud and had fraudulently claimed disability benefits.
All of the allegations are denied by Coun Afzal, who won the seat with a majority of more than 600 votes.
Describing the length of time initially allowed for the trial as "woefully inadequate", Mr Straker said he believed he did have the discretion to adjourn proceedings "from time to time".
Mr Straker said it was an "impossible contention" to suggest that no account could be taken of his prior engagements or those of counsel. Mr Millar's proposition was "not well founded", he ruled.
The case continues.