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Public interest defence successfully deployed at libel trial for first time

The claimant in the case of Economou v De Freitas ([2016] EWHC 1853 (QB)) has lost his libel action against the father of a woman who accused him of rape. The claimant, Alexander Economou, brought the action over statements published in the media between November and December 2014 which he claimed amounted to a “public rubbishing” by the defendant. Mr Justice Warby dismissed the claim at the High Court on 26 July 2016 on the grounds that the statements were made in the public interest.

The case is the first of its kind in which the public interest defence under section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013 was used. Section 4 provides a defence to an action of defamation where a defendant can show that (1) the statement complained of was, or formed part of, a statement on a matter of public interest and (2) he reasonably believed that publishing the statement was in the public interest.

The claim has a long and sad history.  In 2013, the defendant’s daughter, Eleanor De Freitas, accused Mr Economou of rape but the Crown Prosecution Service (‘CPS’) declined to charge him.  Mr Economou then started a private prosecution for perverting the course of justice against Ms De Freitas, alleging that she had made a false claim. The case was subsequently taken over by the CPS. Ms De Freitas committed suicide three days before she was due to stand trial.  Ms de Freitas suffered from bipolar disorder. In the aftermath of her suicide, Mr De Freitas, in a number of statements, raised concerns about the role and conduct of the CPS and its decision to prosecute his daughter.  Mr Economou argued that these statements were defamatory of him as they imputed that he had falsely prosecuted Ms De Freitas when the truth was that he had raped her.

In his defence, Mr De Freitas told the Court that he reasonably believed that his statements were made in the public interest, pointing out that Mr Economou was never identified or named in any of the statements. Upholding this defence, Warby J found that the defendant had “published in good faith, for proper purposes, taking aim at the CPS not Mr Economou; and he had sufficient factual basis for writing what he did”.

The claim related to seven publications, and Warby J found that only two were actionable. The other five either did not refer to Mr Economou or did not cause serious harm to his reputation. In relation to the two actionable publications, the judge upheld the public interest defence and ultimately ruled that, “Mr De Freitas could and did properly consider the publication to be in the public interest and… a judgment in favour of Mr Economou would represent an interference with Mr de Freitas’s free speech rights out of any reasonable proportion to the need to protect and vindicate Mr Economou’s reputation.”

The claimant was ordered to make an interim payment of £400,000.00 on account of costs. Mr Justice Warby said the sum included a 10% reduction, taking into account Mr Economou’s “modest degree of success on some of the issues”.

In a statement released after the hearing, Mr De Freitas said: “I am relieved that the court has accepted my public interest defence in this libel action”.

Mr Economou’s lawyers have said that they intend to seek to appeal the decision.

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