Police ordered to pay £125,000 damages after losing murder libel trial
Bedfordshire Police has been ordered to pay Amilton Bento £125,000 in damages after the Force made a statement at a press conference in July 2009 which suggested that he had killed his girlfriend Kamila Garsztka. Ms Garsztka's body had been found in a lake in 2006.
Mr Bento was convicted of murdering Ms Garsztka at Luton Crown Court in 2007. As a result of concerns over CCTV evidence, Mr Bento's conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2009 and a retrial ordered. The Crown Prosecution service subsequently decided not to proceed with a retrial. Having "offered no evidence" to the Crown Court Mr Bento was formally acquitted of the charge. This prompted Bedfordshire Police to issue a press statement which Mr Bento claimed was defamatory of him in that it meant he was guilty of the murder and had wrongly escaped justice.
At the High Court libel trial before Mr Justice Bean during April and May 2012, the Force sought to justify the statement, maintaining that Mr Bento probably had killed Ms Garsztka and that her death was either murder or manslaughter. In the alternative, the Force pleaded qualified privilege claiming that it had a duty to publish the statement as it was providing information to the public and defending its conduct into the investigation into Ms Garsztka's death.
The defence of justification failed with Bean J concluding "...whilst it is possible that Mr Bento killed Kamila, the balance of probabilities is that he did not and that she committed suicide." The defence of qualified privilege also failed as Bean J held that "...any such duty and right [to publish] must be balanced against the right to reputation of Mr Bento, who was convicted of the crime but subsequently acquitted". Bean J went on to state "I accept that there is a high public interest in maintaining confidence in the criminal justice system. That public interest underlies much of my working life and that of any judge who sits in the criminal courts. I do not accept that that public interest is served by encouraging the police to issue statements indicating their opinion that the decision of the CPs not to pursue a prosecution (or, for that matter, the decision of a judge that a defendant has no case to answer) is wrong because the individual concerned is or is probably guilty. On the contrary: such statements reduce confidence in the criminal justice system, as well as seriously damaging the right to reputation of the individual." Finally, dealing with the Force's need to respond to any criticism of it investigation/conduct, Bean J held that this could have been achieved without stating that Mr Bento was probably guilty.
A full copy of the judgment can be found below:-
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