An attempt by the Boundary Commission in the north of Ireland to drastically reshape constituencies has been declared unlawful by the Court of Appeal in Belfast.
The proposals for redrawing electoral constituencies would have boosted unionism, but the plans have now been outlawed in a judgement likely to have implications for any future gerrymander effort.
Senior judges said the North’s Boundary Commission had improperly used a rule to try to deviate from electoral quota requirements.
The verdict represents a victory for west Belfast man Patrick Lynch who brought the challenge to the commission’s proposals.
Plans published in September 2018 involved cutting the number of parliamentary seats from 18 to 17, as part of a wider move to reduce MPs at Westminster from 650 to 600.
The commmission sought to reduce Belfast from four to three constituencies in a move which would have shored up unionism in the city. In the end, the traditional four seats were retained.
Central to the legal challenge was a rule within the relevant legislation which allows the commission to deviate from a 5 per cent range of the British electoral quota when considering constituency size.
Lawyers for Mr Lynch said the commission acted unlawfully and unfairly. They argued that the authority had relied on the rule without a proper legal basis, and that the commission had suddenly and radically changed direction in its final recommendations report.
The judges accepted the significant public interest and importance of the issues presented in the case. The final report of the Boundary Commission was “vitiated by procedural unfairness”, they affirmed.
Following the verdict, Mr Lynch’s lawyer, Eoin Murphy of Ó Muirigh Solicitors, said the judgement was important.
“Given the very significant effects of any legal error on the part of the Commission – and the essentially irreparable nature of those errors, the Court quite correctly exercised an intense level of scrutiny and arrived at the correct conclusion to quash this report.
He added: “This affirmation from the Court of Appeal will go a long way to clarifying the obligations imposed upon this or any future Boundary Commission.”