Remember Helena Torry, "the voice of the silent majority"? A council candidate for Hazlehead Ashley and Queen’s Cross Ward in Aberdeen in 2012, Torry exhibited more than usual reticence when it came to public speaking. During the campaign, Torry was to all intents and purposes, a political mute. She was, in short, a mannequin with a colourful dress sense.
However light-hearted the intent, it isn't entirely ... er ... legal to stand inanimate objects for political office (well, except in Glasgow and Lanarkshire). Although its framers may not have envisaged the scope of its applicability to tailor's dummies, fibbing on your nomination papers is a no-no under the Representation of the People Act 1983.
65 Tampering with nomination papers, ballot papers, etc.(2) In Scotland, a person shall be guilty of an offence if—(a) at a parliamentary or local government election, he forges any nomination paper, delivers to the returning officer any nomination paper knowing it to be forged, or forges or counterfeits any ballot paper or the official mark on any ballot paper; or(b) at a local government election, he signs any nomination paper as candidate or in any other capacity certifies the truth of any statement contained in it, knowing such statement to be false; or(c) he fraudulently or without due authority, as the case may be, attempts to do any of the foregoing acts.
As a consequence, Torry's "election agent" - the flesh-and-blood Renee Slater - found herself in a bit of a pickle. Had she been convicted, she could have faced anything up to a six month prison sentence, or a £5,000 fine. Prima facie, the case for the defence didn't exactly look promising. Helena Torry remained stubbornly non-existent, and for that reason alone, could be relied upon to cut a prevaricating and evasive figure in the witness box. While I doubt Slater would have received anything like the maximum penalty if she had been convicted, her hopes of acquittal must have been slender.
Fate, fickle as ever, intervened. From the reports in the press, it seems that whatever hapless prosecutor drafted the complaint against Slater fell prey to an elementary legal error: they got the law wrong, prosecuting Slater under a section of the Representation of the People Act 1983 which might initially seem to fit the bill, but which a closer look shows only extends to local elections in England and Wales. If only the prosecutor's eyes had bounced one section down the page, they'd have found the Scottish local election offences they were after, including the provision of false information on nomination papers. Perhaps an understandable boob to make in a pressurised working environment, but such bungling is not sympathetically dealt with in the Sheriff Court, and the presiding judge acquitted Slater and kicked out the case.
Law students everywhere will throb with sympathy, perhaps recalling the increasingly dubious face of the judge presiding over their moot, as they slowly see that their earnest but careless submissions are based substantially on a law which is inapplicable in the jurisdiction, superseded, or which has not yet come into force. It just goes to show that it's not only students who occasionally get themselves in a muddle about the applicable law.
Much of the subsequent media coverage has focussed on the actions of the deputy returning officer. Ought he to have referred the case to the criminal authorities? Would he do it again? Absolutely, says Crawford Langley and he is surely right to do so. Slater may have been acquitted, but it's clearly a criminal offence in Scotland to falsify nomination papers in local elections, whether the proposed beneficiary of your false administration is a manikin, the late emperor Napoleon, your cat Kevin, or your favourite toaster with excellent ideas for rejuvenating the local economy. Those eyeing charismatic dummies and wondering, take note.
This is surely a Good Thing, protecting the integrity of our democratic process from liars, chancers - and in this instance, eccentrics with an inanimate pal who she thought would look good perched in the council chamber. Surely, though, any real embarrassment must stick to the local Procurator Fiscal, no doubt now identifiable by their beetroot complexion, who managed to cock up this straightforward case so royally.