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21.06.16

UKIP politician ordered to pay £40,000 damages to two Labour MPs in libel case

Two Labour MPs, Sir Kevin Barron and John Healey, have each been awarded £40,000 in damages as a result of libelous comments made about them during an interview by a political rival on national television. Liability had already been determined and there was subsequently a hearing to determine quantum.

Background

The claimants in this case are both Labour MPs for constituencies in Rotherham. The Defendant, Caven Vines, was formerly the leader of the UKIP group on Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council (RMBC). The words complained of were said by the defendant during an interview on Sky TV on 5 January 2015. The underlying fact relevant to the interview was that a RMBC report published in August 2014 had concluded that over a sixteen-year period, 1,4000 children had been abused by Asian men in the Rotherham area.

Mr Justice Warby gave judgment (Barron MP & Anor v Vines (Rev 1) [2015] EWHC 1161 (QB)) last year in relation to the meaning of the words complained of, and found that the Defendant had alleged that “(1) that the claimants knew for years most of what was going on by way of large-scale sexual abuse of children in Rotherham, and let it go on despite such knowledge; (2) that they thereby let down the children; and (3) that they were still failing to ensure that the perpetrators were brought to justice.

The recent judgment (Barron & Anor v Vines (Rev 1) [2016] EWHC 1226 (QB)) was an assessment of damages to be awarded to the Claimant.

Judgment

In giving judgment, the court considered the following factors:

  • The gravity of the imputations – the court found the allegations to be serious, and that they related to the integrity, professional reputation, honour and core attributes of each claimant.
  • Authority and extent of publication – the allegations were made during a broadcast on Sky News. Although the exact number of viewers of the particular interview in question were not available, the court approached the assessment on the basis that “tens of thousands or at most hundreds of thousands” are likely to have seen the relevant interview.
  • Identity of publishees – the court accepted that a large number of individuals in the Rotherham area are likely to have seen the interview.
  • “Percolation” and social media – the court held that it is likely that social media and the general election campaign of 2015 contributed to the allegations percolating beyond its immediate audience.
  • Mitigation and/or aggravation by conduct – the court made the general finding that the defendant had no evidence at the time to support the allegations he was making. The court found held that the defendant, contrary to his assertions, had not made an offer of amends pursuant to section 2 of the Defamation Act 1996, as he had offered to pay small specific sums for compensation and costs, rather than to pay both on the basis that they would be assessed if not agreed, and the offer was made after service of the Defence (contrary to section 2(4) of the 1996 Act). The defendant’s overall conduct in the litigation meant that the court was not overly critical of the claimants’ decision to ignore that offer (although that decision did slightly moderate the damages awarded).
  • Evidence of harm or the lack of it – the court rejected the defendant’s argument that because the claimants were both returned with increased majorities in the 2015 general election, the claimants’ reputations had not been seriously harmed.
  • Other aspects of Mr Vines’ conduct of the action – the defendant’s behaviour throughout the case was broadly criticised. In particular, despite initial accepting the summary judgment decision that had been made against him, the defendant later changed his mind and repeatedly attempted to set the judgment against him aside. His behaviour generally was considered unreasonable, in particular his “persistent and ill-founded” suggestions that he had caused no real harm to the claimants.

Damages

Having considered all the relevant factors above, each claimant was awarded damages of £40,000. The court held that the sum was an appropriate balance between vindicating the claimants’ reputation and to avoid over-chilling freedom of speech in the political sphere.

Comment

This case provides a clear warning to defendants (particularly if they are litigants-in-person) of the dangers of failing to mitigate properly which can result in high damages and (one assumes) an even higher adverse costs order. It also provides a reminder on the procedure for making an offer of amends under section 2 of the Defamation Act 1996, specifically that it must be in writing and include (i) a suitable correction of the statement complained of and a sufficient apology, which must be published in a reasonable and practical manner, (ii) details of any offer to pay compensation to be assessed if not agreed and (iii) an offer to pay costs to be assessed if not agreed. The offer must also be made before a defence is served.

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