The petition allegations were thrown into chaos by behind-the-scenes legal wrangling as Chief Reporter Paul Dale explains...

On February 14, seven months after they were first instructed to defend six city councillors accused of vote- rigging, Labour Party solicitors Steel and Shamash announced they were no longer involved in the case.

A week later, the High Court began sitting in Birmingham to consider allegations outlined in two election petitions, that the six were elected in Bordesley Green and Aston wards after masterminding the fiddling of postal votes on an "industrial scale".

For the respondents to the petitions - all Asian men, some of whom struggle with English - the sudden withdrawal of the Labourappointed legal team amounted to a personal St Valentine's Day massacre.

They were effectively cast aside at the last minute and left to fend for themselves in court. It was a task which, understandably, the three Bordesley Green councillors declined when proceedings began on February 21.

Although Steel and Shamash submitted a letter to the court on behalf of the six, stating that the councillors strenuously denied they had any knowledge of or consented to corrupt practices, a statement issued by the Labour Party at the same time was far from a ringing endorsement of the respondents. It began: "We believed that all of the elections in Birmingham in June 2004 were contested fairly."

Observers could hardly avoid noting the use of the past tense, as in "believed" rather than "believe". The Labour statement went on: "However, what has become clear in the recent court proceedings is that the behaviour of some activists from our own ward party, and other parties, in these two wards may have fallen short of the high standards that the electors have the right to expect."

The inference was clear enough. With just days before the trial was due to begin the Labour Party had concluded that the case against the six councillors was so strong that it was no longer prepared to foot the considerable bill for defending the men.

Deputy High Court Judge Richard Mawrey QC made it clear that he regretted the absence of defence lawyers, but refused an application for an adjournment on the grounds that such serious allegations of fraud ought to be adjudicated before the pending General Election.

Mr Mawrey appeared exasperated at the sudden disappearance of Steel and Shamash.

The question remained: why had Labour withdrawn its backing so late in the day and what had the party's legal team been doing since July 2004?

"There were a number of case management conferences at which directions were sought and given.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that these extremely experienced solicitors and counsel knew that they had a full opportunity to adduce any matter that they wished to on behalf of the respondents," Mr Mawrey said.

Ian Soggit, a barrister who agreed to represent the Bordesley Green councillors on a pro bono basis in order to apply for an adjournment, told the court he had been able to highlight several aspects of Steel and Shamash's approach to the case that caused considerable concern.

"It would appear that the case so far has been prepared on behalf of the Labour Party rather than strictly on behalf of each individual respondent.

Mr Soggit described the impact on the three Bordesley Green councillors of losing their legal representation one week before the hearing.

"They were in complete confusion. They were completely over-awed by the situation and were unable to make a meaningful contribution."