Character references that were provided for the sentencing of the jailed former Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke should “in principle” be released, a judge has said following an application by media.
Mrs Justice Whipple was also dismissive of attempted interventions by five Tory MPs and a peer who were rebuked by senior judges for seeking to exert “improper” influence before Wednesday’s hearing.
The parliamentarians, including Elphicke’s wife Natalie, have been referred to the parliamentary commissioner for standards by the Labour MP Helen Hayes after they wrote to senior judges before the hearing and expressed concern that “matters of principle” should first be considered by senior figures of the judiciary and parliament.
“In doing so, they sought improperly to influence the decision of a judge in the Elphicke case itself,” wrote Hayes. “Of particular concern is the use of House of Commons notepaper for this letter, showing disregard for the important separation of constitutional powers and the independence of our judicial system.
A businessman with an official role in the Port of Dover, past and present councillors, a local religious leader, a member of Kent’s chamber of commerce, someone who heads up “quite a well-known” war remembrance charity locally and at least one person who had been involved in the Tory party’s electoral selection process in Kent were among those who provided references, the court heard on Wednesday.
The judge told the hearing at Southwark crown court that she would release some references and would consider what redactions might also be necessary in cases where their release was contested. Some of the individuals had provided them on the understanding they would not be publicly disclosed, though a solicitor who had handled their processing said she was unaware of any such assurances.
Elphicke was sentenced in September to two years in prison after being found guilty of three counts of sexual assault against two women.
Mrs Justice Whipple referred on Wednesday to correspondence by Tory politicians earlier this month that she said “had invited senior judges to consider the matters at stake in this application seemingly before I had decided it”.
She added that five of them – the Tory peer David Freud and the MPs Sir Roger Gale, Adam Holloway, Bob Stewart and Theresa Villiers – were entitled to make submissions via Elphicke’s legal team as they were among those who provided character references.
But they were not entitled to make “wider submissions” and ceased to have any role when they then voluntarily identified themselves recently as the authors of those references.
She added: “The sixth person in the group is Mrs [Natalie] Elphicke, the defendant’s wife and the MP for Dover and Deal, his former constituency. As far as I am concerned, she has no interest or role in the current application and never has had.”
An application for the letters’ release was made by the Guardian, Times and Associated Newspapers where the author is a public figure, in public office or holds or has held a position of public responsibility.
Sarah Palin, a barrister acting for the media, argued that the letters be released on the basis of “open justice” but also because they contribute to the debate about attitudes and conduct of former senior politicians and were “essential to the functioning of democracy.
Elphicke was not present for the hearing, although the court heard he was in the building having been brought to Southwark “by mistake”. Judgment will be handed down under embargo in the coming weeks.”.