18th Dec 2019
Christopher Loxton (public access barrister) for the Claimant
Mr Justice Warby :
On Friday 6 December 2019, I heard two applications by the claimants: (1) an application to continue until trial an interim non-disclosure order, or INDO, against these five defendants, first granted after a hearing without notice on 23 October 2019; and (2) an application for an order for seizure and search of the fourth defendant’s computer. At the end of the hearing I announced my decision to refuse both applications, for reasons to be given later. This judgment gives those reasons. It also deals with the fourth defendant’s application, supported by the other defendants, for the discharge of the original INDO, on the grounds of material non-disclosure.
The history in outline
This is a claim by the limited company responsible for UKIP, the political party, against a group of individuals including the Party’s former Leader, Deputy Leader, General Secretary and Returning Officer (“Mr Braine”, “Mr Sharp” and “Mr Armstrong”) and a former member who has IT skills (“Mr Dent”). The allegations pleaded in the Particulars of Claim are of breach of directors’ duties and fiduciary duties, breach of confidence, and conspiracy to injure by unlawful means. In the circumstances, it may not surprise anyone to learn that the general background is one of internal political strife. Much of the Particulars of Claim, and a good deal of the evidence before me, is devoted to some fairly elaborate explanations of the disputes, and UKIP’s account of the rights and wrongs of them. I shall have to make some reference to some of this, by way of background, but it is some very particular events on 15 and 16 October 2019 which prompted the claim, and it is those which must be the main focus of my attention.
On 17 September 2019, UKIP opened applications for election to its National Executive Committee (“NEC”). The Leader, Deputy Leader (where there is one) and the General Secretary of the Party are members of the NEC. As General Secretary and Returning Officer for the election, Mr Armstrong was also an ex officio member. The Party Chairman, Kirstan Herriot, was also an NEC member, as was the Party Secretary, Adam Richardson, a barrister.
By the time of an NEC meeting fixed for 12 October 2019, disputes or differences had arisen over Mr Armstrong’s conduct as Returning Officer, and in particular the way in which he had or had not vetted applications from candidates for election, and tested them against the eligibility criteria. There was evidently heated debate at that meeting about the correct interpretation of the party constitution, with Mr Richardson taking one position, and Messrs Braine, Sharp and Armstrong taking a different one. The background to this dispute appears to be a factional contest, in which Ms Herriot’s side feared that members of the “Batten Brigade”, that is to say supporters of Gerard Batten, former UKIP Leader, were being put up for the NEC, inappropriately in their view.
After the meeting of 12 October, by email of Tuesday 15 October 2019, at 1pm, Ms Herriot moved the NEC that a vote be taken by email, to remove Mr Armstrong from his position. NEC members voted in favour of the motion. Mr Armstrong did not accept the validity of this move, and sought to persuade an employee at UKIP’s head office by the name of Ruth Purdie to send out an email to the UKIP membership as a whole, allowing all prospective NEC candidates to stand, on the footing that he remained Returning Officer.
Later that afternoon, Mr Braine sent an email to Ms Purdie and her manager, David Challice, announcing that he had suspended Ms Herriot from her position, and instructing the staff not to take her calls. He also purported, as Party Leader, to suspend Ms Herriot and all other NEC members, as NEC members and as directors of the claimant company. The suspensions were imposed pending a police investigation into a complaint made by Mr Armstrong that there had been unauthorised access to his emails.