Full case report

Barron v Collins

Reference [2017] EWHC 162 (QB)
Court High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division

Judge Mr Justice Warby

Date of Judgment 6 Feb 2017


Summary

Defamation – slander – libel – offer of amends – s3(5) Defamation Act 1996 – political libels – aggravating conduct during the offer of amends procedure


Facts

The Cs were three Labour MPs representing constituencies around Rotherham. D, a UKIP MEP, made a speech at UKIP’s national conference alleging that the Cs, despite being aware of a large scale sex abuse ring in Rotherham, deliberately chose not to intervene. The speech was broadcast live on BBC Parliament and republished on the UKIP website and elsewhere. Cs brought proceedings in libel and slander against D.

In a preliminary hearing on meaning Warby J found that D’s speech contained the following three meanings, the first being an imputation of fact, the second and third being expressions of opinion:

  1. The Cs “knew many of the details of the scandalous child sexual exploitation that took place in Rotherham over a period of sixteen years, in the course of which an estimated 1,400 children were raped, beaten, plied with alcohol and drugs, and threatened with violence by men of Asian origin, yet deliberately chose not to intervene but to allow the abuse to continue.”
  2. That the Cs “acted in this way for motives of political correctness, political cowardice, or political selfishness”
  3. That the Cs “were thereby guilty of misconduct so grave that it was or should be criminal, as it aided and abetted the perpetrators and made the Claimants just as culpable as the perpetrators.”

D’s solicitors sent Cs’ solicitors a letter making an unqualified offer of amends on her behalf, pursuant to s.2(1) of the Defamation Act 1996. The Cs accepted it and applied for the court to assess compensation due to them under s.3 of the 1996 Act.

The hearing to assess compensation had been substantially delayed due to a number of actions by D, including: an attempt to vacate the offer of amends after it had been made; a request for the action to be stayed due to D’s ill-health; and an application for the European Parliament (‘EP’) to issue an opinion on whether Cs’ action infringed D’s immunities as an MEP (the EP’s opinion was that the action did not).


Issue

The award for general damages to be awarded to Cs by way of compensation under s.3(5) Defamation Act 1996:

(a) what would the award of general damages have been had there not been an offer of amends;

(b) The discount to be applied to the award of general damages in light of the offer of amends, taking into account Ds behavior since the offer was made.


Held

(1)  The allegations were undoubtedly serious, and were both spoken to a conference hall full of party supporters, and broadcast live on BBC Parliament to a substantial number of viewers. The Cs suffered serious harm to their reputations and substantial distress as a result of the allegations contained the speech, repetition of those allegations and the response of social media users to the allegations.

(2)   D’s submission that Cs’ reputations were not seriously harmed amongst individuals who politically disagreed with Cs was rejected, as was Ds submission that success in a general election result showed that the Cs had suffered no harm to reputation.

(3)   Taking into account the weight of the allegations and their effect upon Cs, the appropriate starting point was to compensate each C the sum of £10,000 for the slander at the conference, and £50,000 for the libel broadcast on the BBC.

(4)   The court took into account the fact that the offer was made at the last possible moment, eight months after the speech had been made. Further D had done nothing to stem any continuing harm, nor to restore the damage done to Cs’ reputations. Uniquely, despite making the offer of amends she had made no correction or apology at all. D’s conduct throughout the litigation had done nothing to lessen the Cs distress, and had unreasonably caused considerable and unnecessary delay. At the hearing D unreasonably put forward a number of offensive arguments that had been tried and failed before.

(5)   Despite D’s unreasonable conduct D had not managed to wholly erase all of the benefits that the Cs had gained from the Offer of Amends: the issue of liability had been settled. So whereas the usual discount for a prompt and unqualified offer of amends is between 35-50%, on the facts of this case, Cs’ awards were reduced by 10%: £1,000 for the slander and £5,000 for the libel. Thus each C was awarded £54,000.


Comment

This case provides a useful summary of the law regarding the Offer of Amends procedure, and in particular, provides guidance on assessing compensation under s.3(5) Defamation Act 1996 where the party who has made the Offer of Amends has behaved unreasonably after the Offer is made. Also of note is Warby J’s warning that special caution is required when it comes to deciding what is justified and proportionate by way of compensation for political libels (which he first stated in Barron v Vines [2016] EWHC 1226 (QB)).


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Instructing Solicitors

Steel & Samash for Cs.