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Legal case calls for inquiry and new laws to protect against Russian interference in UK democratic process

A group which campaigns to protect democracy in the UK has launched a legal case over Russian interference in the democratic process in the UK since 2016.

Posted on 21 August 2020

The Citizens supported by a group of cross-party parliamentarians, is calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to instigate an independent investigation into the role of Russia in trying to influence British voters and interfere with British democratic processes at least from the date of the EU referendum encompassing the 2017 and 2019 General Elections as well.

The supporting group includes Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Ben Bradshaw, the Green MP Caroline Lucas, Alyn Smith for the SNP, Lord Strasburger who sits on the Lib Dem benches in the Lords and Baroness Wheatcroft, a Conservative peer until she resigned from the party last year.

Leigh Day has sent a pre action protocol letter to the Prime Minister, arguing that his failure to hold such an investigation is a breach of the right to free and fair elections protected by Article 3, Protocol One (A3P1) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Citizens also argues that UK law fails to protect citizens from external interference in its democratic process and calls upon the Prime Minister to fix that gap in the country’s legislative framework.

In its letter to Downing Street, sent this week, The Citizens says The Russia Report of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament found credible evidence of foreign state attempts to interfere with the UK’s electoral processes from at least the time of the EU referendum in 2016. The report said an inquiry was necessary to protect against future attempts to subvert Britain’s democratic processes.

The letter says the right to free and fair election under A3P1 imposes positive obligations upon States to ensure, not only that free and democratic elections take place, but that they do so under “conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature”.

It says A3P1 also obliges governments to investigate arguable violations of Convention rights where there is credible evidence of foreign state interference in a democratic electoral process.

The Citizens argues that without an investigation into possible foreign interference into the UK democratic process, there is a risk of any such interference being repeated.

The letter directly quotes the findings of the Russia Report which found that the UK was “clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts”. 

It says the law must be strengthened to ensure “conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people” as required by A3P1 and calls on the Government to address the following: 

  • There is no entity with the legal responsibility to prevent and combat foreign interference in UK elections (Russia Report, §§31-35, 122-124)
  • There is no legal obligation for online political advertisements to indicate their source, who has paid for them, and their country of origin (see Russia Report, §38; DCMS Report, §§211-212 and Recommendations 21-22)
  • There is no legal requirement for social media companies to cooperate with the security and intelligence agencies where it is suspected that a hostile foreign state may be covertly running a campaign (Russia Report, §38)
  • There is no ban on foreign donations to UK political parties or election campaigns (DCMS Report, §267 and Recommendation 36)
  • There is no obligation on foreign state agents, or others who represent the interests of foreign powers, to register as such in the UK (Russia Report §§54, 114-116).

Cross-party support for the PAP letter includes MPs and Lords from Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP. They say their legal action has nothing to do with Brexit but is about ensuring the integrity of future elections.

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton, said: 

“Democratic processes are clearly at risk and it seems that the integrity of our elections is being deliberately undermined.  Nothing could be more serious for our democracy.”

Lord Strasburger said: 

“Their refusal to even ask our intelligence services what the Russians did to influence the referendum is a total dereliction of their duty to protect us all.”

The Leigh Day team representing The Citizens and cross-party group is Tessa Gregory, Tom Short and Rhiannon Adams.

Leigh Day partner Tessa Gregory said:

“Our client believes that by turning a blind eye to alleged Russian interference in our democratic processes and by refusing to investigate credible evidence of such interference, the Government is breaching its legal duty to protect the rights of all British citizens to free and fair elections. 

“It believes that the Russia Report has shone a light on the clear deficiencies in the legislative framework of the UK which the Government must urgently address to protect our democracy from interference from foreign states.

“If the Government refuses to act, our client intends to apply for a judicial review to challenge the Government’s failure to protect our democracy.”