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Prisoners' entitlement to damages in defamation claim should be reduced

Two serving prisoners have brought a libel action against the police for the contents of a press release which they allege have defamed them.   In RH and AA* v The Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [2013] EWHC 848 (QB), the High Court was asked to consider the actual meaning of the words complained of in a press release entitled ˜Three Jailed for Murder of Marvin Henry and whether the proceedings were an abuse of process. 

The two claimants were convicted and sentenced at the Old Bailey for grievous bodily harm and false imprisonment. These charges were in relation to the friend of the murder victim, Marvin Henry and predated his death by three weeks.  Marvin Henry was shot in October 2010 by Ithai McPhee and shervin Irvani.  The claimants were associates of the two men convicted of the murder and the first claimant stood trial for the murder but was acquitted.  The second claimant was never charged with the murder.

The Defendant advanced its argument on abuse of process on two grounds:

(a)     That the claimants had failed to address in their pleadings the number or identity of the people that they allege had viewed the press release despite this being an important obligation in libel claims;

(b)    That the claimants had no reputation to lose having been convicted of the serious offences of false imprisonment and grievous bodily harm for which they had received substantial custodial sentences.

As to the first point, Mr Justice Tugendhat indicated that he would have struck out the claim on the basis that there was no evidence before the court that the words complained of had been published to a significant number of readers such as to constitute a real and substantive tort.  The Defendant had admitted that the headline of the press release, dated 23 December 2011, was inaccurate but submitted that the body of text was factually correct.  He, therefore, did not consider that there would be a risk of re-publication given this admission and the fact that the press release was no longer available on the website where it had been initially published.  However, despite this, he ordered that the claimants be allowed to amend their particulars to address the extent of the readership of the alleged defamatory material

Addressing the second ground, Tugendhat J ruled that the prisoners were capable of being defamed as the press release suggested that they had been involved in the commission of an offence more serious than the one which they were convicted of.  However, when considering the level of damages, he thought that the amount which they would be awarded, if successful at trial, would have to be reduced to take account of the reputations that they currently hold i.e. as convicted criminals.

For full judgment:

*The names of the claimants have been removed from this article at the request of the First Claimant.  The full citation for the case can be found at the Bailii website. 


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