Ballot battle leaves a £32,000 bill

A BUSINESSMAN faces a £30,000 legal bill after his battle to see rejected ballot papers came to an end.

Independent candidate Ah-med Khan launched an election petition at the High Court in London after he lost to Labour's Audrey McMillan by just 33 votes in South Shields's Beacon and Bents ward last May.

As part of that process, he asked for access to 88 unverified postal votes at the county court.

But when the case got to court, South Tyneside Council admitted the rejected ballot papers had been lost and that it had known they were missing since early May.

The petition was then thrown out on various technicalities.

Now Mr Khan has withdrawn his petition, and been landed with a legal bill from the council of 26,000 – on top of his own legal fees of about 6,000.

The council's expenses include 1,000 paid for a one-hour telephone conference call, and 12,000 paid to barrister Timothy Straker, a QC, for handling parts of the case.

Mr Khan is unhappy about the size of the council's bill, however.

In a letter to the council, his solicitors say: "The costs are totally disproportionate to the nature of the dispute, especially in the circumstances, where it is apparent the ballot papers were missing from the outset of this litigation."

Mr Khan said: "This is a huge amount of money for anyone to have to pay, and the bill is far higher than expected.

"However, I stood up for a principle, I stood up for the man in the street, and I took on the system.

"From the day of the election, when I lost by 33 votes, all I asked for was to see the rejected postal votes.

"My only option left was to go to court to see them, at enormous expense.

"I ran up huge bills in my fight to see the papers, yet the council lost them just days after the election and didn't reveal this crucial fact for months.

"The current police investigation surrounding the events will no doubt uncover what went on."

Mr Khan is now in the process of withdrawing his legal petition, which is expected to add further expenses to his final legal bill.

A council spokesman said: "We are pleased Mr Khan has finally agreed to end these proceedings by applying for permission to withdraw his High Court election petition.

"This was always inevitable after the county court in November found no substance to his separate application to that court. It dismissed it and ordered him to pay the costs.

"Mr Khan could have avoided much of these costs had he withdrawn the proceedings earlier, as he was invited to do so."