Full case report

Wood v Chief Constable of West Midlands Police (CA)

Reference [2004] EWCA Civ 1638; [2005] EMLR 449; The Times, 13 December 2004
Court Court of Appeal

Judge May, Dyson & Wall LJJ

Date of Judgment 8 Dec 2004


Summary

Defamation – libel – qualified privilege – summary judgment – slander – amendment to add case in slander after the close of evidence at trial – s.32A Limitation Act 1980 – CPR 17.4


Facts

The Claimant and H, trading as VSG, were in motor salvage for the insurance industry. H was arrested and charged with handling stolen motor vehicles, unconnected with VSG. Prior to H’s trial, a senior police officer wrote letters to members of the insurance world, including to a client of VSG, advising of H’s arrest and of his attempt “to disguise his criminal activities with a veil of legitimacy”, thereby referring to VSG. The letters did not name W, but he sued in libel complaining that the letters implicated him, as H’s partner in VSG and its public face, in the alleged criminal activity of H. The police raised qualified privilege, namely, a duty to prevent crime. At the trial, the client of VSG to whom a letter was sent gave unexpected evidence that the letter was never received.


Issue

(1) Whether the judge was correct to rule before the trial that the communications complained of by the police were not made on occasions of qualified privilege.
(2) Whether, at the trial, the judge was right to permit an amendment to substitute for the case of libel to the client of VSG a case of slander, after the close of evidence and after the expiry of the relevant limitation period.


Held

(1) The publications were not made on occasions of qualified privilege. The police have a public duty to detect and prevent crime and protect potential victims, but disclosure of damaging information about individuals requires specific public interest justification and should therefore be for the purpose and to the extent necessary for the performance of their public duties: see R v Chief Constable of North Wales ex p Thorpe [1999] QB 396 (which “illuminated, without necessarily defining” the duty contended for). The publications did not sufficiently contribute to the prevention of crime or the protection of victims to sustain a duty of disclosure. The fact that H had been arrested but not convicted required “particular care”. “The police had no business, let alone duty, to make statements anticipating that he would be convicted.”
(2) The Judge had acted properly within his discretion in permitting the slander amendment.


Comment

This judgment is valuable for its acknowledgement that the court will look to the general law governing public authorities when considering whether a public authority had a duty to publish material defamatory of individuals for the purpose of a qualified privilege defence. However, the implication of the particular findings of fact in this case are limited by the coming into force, since the publications complained of in 1999, of new legislation on Human Rights, Data Protection and the Police.


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