JUSTICE finally prevailed for Highworth when a disastrous ballot counting error was fixed after a lengthy legal process kickstarted by the town’s voters.

Dozens of people rallied to fundraise a petition pushing for a recount after the town council election bungle in May. The Swindon-based lawyer who went to the High Court to represent them spoke to the Adver about the once-in-a-lifetime case.

Francis George, senior partner at the solicitors of the same name, said: “It was a complicated process. I had been practicing law for 20 years but never done a case like it before.

“You get nervous in every court case because you need to be as taut as a bowstring. It’s a real challenge.

“It was not the first time I’d been to the High Court. It’s a cathedral of law but it’s a rarity to take on a case like this and it was my first time in front of more than one High Court judge.

“I studied a bit more than usual beforehand and luckily, because everyone agreed that a clear error had been made, there was not a lot to argue about in the courtroom.

“I had small arguments to make on little issues, all resolved, and the correct result has now been made.

“There’s normally one High Court petition every year, though this year I had six of them. The reason for so many is, I think, because we live in turbulent times.”

The controversy began when the first figures for the election results in Highworth totalled more than 41,000 despite only 2,477 ballots being cast.

Conservative candidates each received over 2,380 votes more than they should have while their Labour opponents each received around 280 votes more than they actually did.

It is thought that the error was caused by counting block votes, in which a voter ticks off every candidate from a particular political party, as votes for each candidate in the Conservative or Labour Party respectively rather than splitting the votes evenly between candidates.

Independent candidates’ vote totals had a much smaller margin of error, ranging from zero to 11 votes difference between the incorrect and revised ballot counts.

The new totals revealed that Conservative candidate Pauline Webster did not in fact receive enough votes to be reelected and independent candidate Kim Barber should have won a place on the town council.

The difference in votes between the winners and losers narrowed considerably after the error was corrected, with Ms Webster’s figure falling from 3,118 to 727.

Coun Lynn Vardy received 732 votes, just five votes more than her former colleague but this was enough to keep her seat, which shows just how close the election results were in the end.

Ms Barber received 862 votes originally and 863 in the recount, enough to poll amongst the winners in the revised rankings, so she will now take her place as councillor at the next meeting.

Mr George paid tribute to the determined citizens of Highworth who made the petition he worked on possible.

The solicitor added: “The community of Highworth pulled together and managed to mount a challenge in a difficult and rare legal environment.

“If they had not had the crowdfunding to get the security required or agreed with us a way of not paying us until the end of the case, it would not have been viable.

“We should all be very proud of them and glad that justice has prevailed.

“It’s great that we have a system to ensure free and proper elections, with judicial intervention available when something goes wrong.”

The £16,000 in legal costs should be covered by the insurance of Swindon Borough Council’s returning officer Susie Kemp, who apologised for the mistake amid calls for her to resign.

All the money paid by Highworth voters towards funding the petition is expected to be refunded in due course.

Coun Keith Smith, who originally organised the High Court petition in his role as Highworth Community Partnership Group chairman, said: “It’s a relief that justice has been served, it’s taken so long.”